the nation 

2019.01.31

Mitch McConnell and the Russians

PAC Donations technically not illegal




Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

I was surprised to see reporting from Daily Kos with the following headline: "Mitch McConnell reportedly linked to Putin, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Russian companies".

So I figured I'd look into it.

The article was written by Leslie Salzillo. Under her name is the word "Community," which I think -- and I offer my apologies here, because I'm not familiar with Daily Kos -- means the article was written by someone who is maybe not on staff. Don't get me wrong, here -- I'd love to be able to contribute articles to somebody as a "side hustle" (local news made a big deal of that term recently, so I thought I'd try it on.). The only point I'm trying to make here is that the article might be the equivalent of an opinion piece.

Salzillo points to an opinion article in the Dallas News to show that McConnell, along with Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, had a contributor named Blavatnik who has dual US and UK citizenship and strong ties to Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg. Deripaska and Vekselberg are both strongly tied to the Kremlin. 1

The Dallas News article was originally written for The Dallas Morning News by Ruth May, "a business professor at the University of Dallas and an expert on the economies of Russia and Ukraine."

These opinion articles are some pretty strong opinions. And they're damn good.

Daily Kos published Salzillo's article on January 28th, just after US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced the US had lifted sanctions on three Russian companies tied to Oleg Deripaska. Mnuchin lifted these sanctions despite two resolutions introduced by Demorats in the House of Representatives.

Among the many interesting points May makes in her article: Mnuchkin and Blavatnik owned RATPAC Entertainment together until Mnuchkin divested his interest to become Secretary of the Treasury.

Blavatnik:

  • Billionaire Russian with US citizenship
  • donates millions to McConnell and other Republican PACs;
  • tied to Deripaska, who is tied directly to the Kremlin
  • Former Mnuchkin business parter
Mnuchkin:
  • Former Blavatnik business partner
  • now US Secretary of the Treasury
  • lifts sanctions on three Deripaska businesses.

Salzillo's point is simply that McConnell's ride-or-die alliance with Trump and the Russians are guiding his actions as Senate Majority Leader.



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2019.01.18

Let's Talk about the NRA

'Going bankrupt' not directly related to Russian infiltration




The seal of the National Rifle Association The logo of the National Rifle Association

Mainstream news reports from August, 2018 suggested that the NRA could face bankruptcy. This just two years after it donated a whopping $70 million on President Trump's election campaign. How could the gun rights organization, in existence for nearly 150 years, go from riches to rags in just two years?

 

 

Proof of Collusion

Seth Abramson, in his book, Proof of Collusion, devotes an entire chapter to the connection between Russian operatives and the NRA, from 2013 to 2017. To summarize the following paragraphs, Abramson spells out for us certain flashpoints in the time between the 2012 and 2016 presidential election cycles a Russian effort to get Trump into the White House and well connected with the Kremlin. Elsewhere in his book he identifies Trump's desire to build a Trump Tower in Moscow; Abramson will show the intersection of Trump's business and political aspirations.

Starting in early 2013, a wealthy Russian politician with ties to Russia's intelligence apparatus named Alexsandr Torshin, and a young Russian woman named Maria Butina begin work to create a back channel link between the Kremlin and Republican Party leadership by infiltrating the National Rifle Association. Their scheme involves making social connections with powerful NRA members and GOP operatives, and engineering very generous support to the Trump campaign. (p. 81)

The 24 year-old Butina seduces Paul Erickson, an influential GOP operative and NRA member, who is 30 years her senior. Before long, she's living with him, and he is paying many of her expenses (p.82). By the fall, Butina has been introduced to NRA President David Keene, and Keene is hosted in Moscow that November. Keene is also editor of the opinion pages for the Washington Times, and publishes an essay by Torshin. Over the following year, Torshin and Butina attend multiple NRA functions. In 2015, Torshin has made Trump's acquaintance at the NRA national conference in Nashville, Tennessee, and by the close of the year has hosted two dinners in Moscow for NRA A-listers and "influential Russian government and business figures" (p. 86). Separately, Butina, in attendance at the "Freedom Fest" event in Las Vegas, actually asks Candidate Trump about his position on relations with Putin and Russia in a televised Q&A session.

By the close of 2015, it's become clear that the Russians expect Trump to lift economic sanctions against Russia, and are dangling a giant carrot in front of him: Trump Tower Moscow. "[U]nless Trump wins the presidency and removes U.S. sanctions on Russia, he will not be able to get the money [secured for the Trump Tower project]" (p.86).

2016 -- Election year:

In 2016, the annual NRA conference is held in Louisville, Kentucky, and once again Torshin and Butina attend. A few days before the conference, Butina's boyfriend, Erickson, writes Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn to inform the Trump campaign that the Kremliin is "quietly but actively seeking a dialog with the United States that isn't forthcoming under the current administration," adding that "the Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true reset in this relationship would be with a new Republican in the White House." Erickson notes that Torshin will attempt to make "first contact" with the Trump campaign at the NRA convention.... At the same time Torshin approaches Dearborn through Erickson, he also uses Rick Clay, whom the New York Times describes as "an advocate for conservative Christian causes," to get the same message to Dearborn: Putin wants to meet with Trump, and Torshin wants to meet with Trump first to set up the meeting. (p. 87)

Finally, Abramson closes the chapter by quoting an e-mail that Erickson wrote on October 4, 2016, stating in part: "I've been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [GOP] leaders through, of all conduits, the NRA" (p.89).

In summary, Torshin and Butina, working in league with the Kremlin, were able to infiltrate the NRA, use NRA and GOP members to use their contacts within the Trump campaign to communicate messages from the Kremlin, and actually make direct contact with the candidate himself. In Butina's plea deal (reached December, 2018), Butina "agreed and conspired, with a Russian government official and at least one other person, for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of [That Russian official]." 1 The Russian official is likely Torshin.

So, what about the money?

NRA expenditures on the 2016 presidential primaries and general election were far higher than the NRA initially reported -- and eventually reach and exceed $70 million, according to a McClatchy report in January 2018.... Massive spending by the NRA and the RNC on Trump's behalf make it possible for him to abandon his self-funding promise from the primary and nevertheless be adequately funded for the general election. In the end, the NRA spends more than the billionaire Trump does on his own election.... As noted by Vanity Fair in June 2018, "The FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller are investigating meetings between NRA officials and powerful Russian operatives, trying to determine if those contacts had anything to do with the gun group spending $30 million [in direct support] to help elect Donald Trump... The use of foreign money in American political campaigns is illegal (pp. 88-89)  2

 

 

Funding in Decline

A November 2018 article in The Hill stated that 2017 income at the NRA was down $55MM, about 15%, from the previous year. 3 Donations had dropped $27MM and annual dues contributions dropped a whopping $35MM -- over 20% -- from the previous year.

Additionally, NBC News reported that the non-profit finished TY2016 with a $45MM loss.4

I could accept the argument that donations were down, because 2016 was an election year. But the thing I find surprising was that its annual dues contributions dropped by a fifth. That seems to me to indiate they lost a lot of members following the elections.

Well, perhaps they have. An AXIOS report from March, 2018 indicated that the NRA is now seen more negatively, particularly given the tragedies involving automatic and semiautomatic weapons at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas (October, 2017), Sutherland Springs, Texas (November, 2017), and at a high school in Parkland, Florida (February 2018).5  The report suggested that 40% of Americans now viewed the NRA negatively, with a 15% decline in favorability among white women.

On its surface, the decline in membership seems much more related to domestic gun violence than Russian campaign interference, with three tragedies in five months and all involving AR-15's. The most notable of these events, in terms of public outrage, was probably the Parkland shooting.

 

 

Parkland Backlash

The Parkland shootings became particularly significant for the NRA because public sentiment became very negative. Following the incident at the high school, several companies terminated their relationships with the NRA:

Among those cutting ties with the NRA were the car rental groups Enterprise, Hertz, Avis and Budget; the insurance giant MetLife; the software firm Symantec; and the Boston-based home security company SimpliSafe. Delta and United also said in statements Saturday that they will no longer offer travel discounts for the NRA. Each airline asked that related information be removed from the NRA website. 6
But these are nothing compared to the actions taken by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

In April, 2018, Cuomo ordered the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS), which regulates all banking and insurance companies doing business in New York, to "to urge insurance companies, New York State-chartered banks, and other financial services companies licensed in New York to review any relationships they may have with the National Rifle Association and other similar organizations. Upon this review, the companies are encouraged to consider whether such ties harm their corporate reputations and jeopardize public safety."  7

According to NBC News reporting:

Then the DFS went after companies that did business with the NRA, fining Lockton Companies and Chubb for underwriting the NRA’s "Carry Guard" insurance, which the agency said unlawfully covered gun owners’ "acts of intentional wrongdoing." (The NRA says the program covers members’ expenses "arising out of the lawful self-defense use of a legally possessed firearm.")

The NRA said in a recent court filing that New York state’s campaign to push insurance companies and banks to cut ties with the organization had already cost it "tens of millions of dollars" this year and could ultimately make it "unable to exist as a not-for-profit or pursue its advocacy mission." Unless the courts step in and stop New York, "the NRA will suffer irrevocable loss and irreparable harm if it is unable to acquire insurance or other financial services," the group said in a complaint submitted in federal court on July 20.  4

 

 

My Conclusion

The hard times at the NRA appear chiefly connected with the episodes of gun violence that occurred between late 2017 and early 2018. During that period and the months that followed, the NRA brand suffered in terms of popularity, and in financial terms as numerous companies severed ties with the venerable non-profit either as a function of pressure brought by private citizens over social media or as a function of pressure from the Governor of New York through its state agencies.

I was unaware of the connection of the NRA to the Kremlin until I read about it in Proof of Collusion. I admit I was spellbound by Abramson's recounting of these events. I would love to know how much money the Russians poured into the NRA's coffers, and how much of it was among the $70MM the organization spent to support the Trump campaign (read: how much the NRA laundered). Perhaps we will see a full accounting when the Special Counsel releases its final report.

How do I feel about the NRA going under? I feel bad for the private citizens who are firearm owners, because I feel NRA membership probably offers something of value to them. I'm talking about the Average Joes who take their pistols down to the range every so often and put ordnance on a big paper target. The NRA sponsors all sorts of gun safety classes -- I know because I've attended one. Classes like these are absolutely valuable for people to learn about firearm safety. Do I support the NRA in this regard? Absolutely.

On the other hand, how do I feel about the notion that the Russians knew the gun lobby was a strong link to the GOP? How do I feel about the NRA laundering Russian money and funneling it into the Trump campaign? That's a problem for me. I don't like politics in my guns. (By the way, the notion "the liberals are coming to take my guns away" is complete horse shit, Mr. Patrick, and you know it.) Do I support the NRA in this regard? Oh Hell no.

Am I a member of the NRA? No.

Would I consider joining? No. Not after all of this bullshit. And by the way, I don't entirely agree with their mission, either -- because I believe the amount of money it's spent in the political arena is probably what has kept the second amendment debate in limbo for... nearly 150 years. That debate is the interpretation of the amendment which allows private citizens unfettered access to assault weapons. That's some pretty advanced "advocacy" there.

What I would support is the NRA in a much more limited... scope. GET IT? HA!!
And I don't think that makes me liberal. It just means I have common sense.





If the NRA wants to be political, fine. Split the education programs out to somebody else, and I'll support that company instead. I want "advocacy" to mean proper firearm education and licensing. I don't want it to mean an avenue to influence, disturb, or corrupt our political process. Or to put itself in such a position as to launder money for Russian oligarchs. If it wasn't so deep in bed with the GOP, it wouldn't have gotten into that particular mess.

As far as its financial woes, well, advocacy for the AR-15 and other assault weapons of its ilk is what got it where it is -- at a low point in membership, a low point in income, and left looking like a turd in the punchbowl. Why? Because people were using those guns on innocents in schools or at outdoor concerts. The NRA didn't want that. Nobody did. But I guess this is what "advocacy" has bought.



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2019.01.18

Bombshell Buzzfeed Article Charges Cohen Directed to Lie to Congress (UPDATED)

Says Cohen merely confirmed what Mueller already knew, but DOJ calls reporting 'inaccurate'




President Trump President Trump

Mainstream morning news is all abuzz this morning about a Buzzfeed article charging President Trump with having directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his Moscow tower project.

Michael Cohen, in testimony to the Office of the Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, had previously stated that the Trump Tower Moscow project had ended in January, 2016 as an attempt to distance Trump from, and to limit, the FBI's Russia investigations.

The special counsel's office learned about Trump's directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.

Buzzfeed is careful to note that this "is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia."

Predictably, the Buzzfeed article sent Democrats into an uproar, with some calling for an investigation, others grabbing their pitchforks and torches and calling for impeachment. 1 Others took to twitter: 2

Rep. Ted Lieu tweeting that Donald Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice, and pointing out that the first article of impeachment of President Nixon was obstruction of justice

In a surprising move, the Justice Department this afternoon actually issued a statement on the Buzzfeed story, saying that there were unspecified inaccuracies in their report.3

UPDATE:
Subsequent Washington Post reporting claimed that the Special Counsel's office later sent Buzzfeed an excerpt from the transcript of Cohen's plea hearing, which showed that Cohen said that he made the misstatements to be consistent with [Trump's] political messaging and out of loyalty to [Trump] -- it did not say that Trump told him to make those misstatements.

HOWEVER (emphasis mine):

Guy Petrillo, Cohen's attorney, wrote in a memo in advance of [Cohen's] sentencing, "We address the campaign finance and false statements allegations together because both arose from Michael's fierce loyalty to Client-1. In each case, the conduct was intended to benefit Client-1, in accordance with Client-1's directives." Client-1 refers to Trump. 4

The Washington Post article goes on to say that nowhere else in the memo could one find any direct statement that Trump had ordered Cohen to lie. Furthermore, the Justice Department did some homework based on the Buzzfeed article and was unable to find any testimony or other evidence to corroborate the report; this, WaPo explains, is partly why the Office of the Special Counsel decided to dispute the report.



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2019.01.10

Checkmate? [UPDATED]

Redaction slip-up in Manafort case causes Trump collusion stir




President Trump President Trump

I've been seeing multiple stories over the past few days regarding details discovered in the case against Paul Manafort that appear to significantly undermine the president's position on accusations his campaign colluded with the Russian government for advantage in the 2016 presidential election.

The Washington Post characterized the information as "[indicative of] a pathway by which the Russians could have had access to Trump campaign data." 1

It's also being widely reported that Manafort was in debt to Oleg Deripaska, and that Manafort's intention was to pass the polling data on to him through Konstantin Kilimnik, a Manafort associate since at least 2005 with known ties to Russian Intelligence.

Josh Marshall, an editor for TalkingPointsMemo, explains it in his blog post:

According to the Manafort court filing, the Special Counsel’s Office charged that Manafort had lied about sharing "polling data" about the 2016 campaign with his former Ukrainian deputy Konstantin Kilimnik, a man who US intelligence believes is himself tied to Russian intelligence. Given that Manafort had also told Kilimnik to offer briefings on the campaign to Russian oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska, it was a reasonable surmise that handing over the polling data was meant for Deripaska as well. Then yesterday mid-evening, The New York Times confirmed as much.2

Time Magazine reporting cited in the TalkingPointsMemo editorial offers some interesting background on Manafort at the time of the presidential campaign:

When he joined the campaign in the spring of 2016, Manafort was nearly broke. The veteran political consultant had racked up bills worth millions of dollars in luxury real estate, clothing, cars and antiques. According to allegations contained in court records filed in the U.S. and the Cayman Islands, he was also deeply in debt to... Oleg Deripaska... In a petition filed in the Cayman Islands in 2014, lawyers for Deripaska, a metals tycoon with close ties to the Kremlin, complain that Manafort and his then-partner had "simply disappeared" with around $19 million of the Russian’s money. When [Manafort] reappeared in the headlines around April 2016, [he] was serving as an unpaid adviser to the Trump campaign. He wanted his long-time patron in Moscow to know all about it. In a series of emails sent that spring and summer, Manafort tried to offer "private briefings" about the presidential race to Deripaska, apparently, as one of the emails puts it, to "get whole." Reports in The Atlantic and The Washington Post revealed those emails in the fall of 2017. 3

TPM's conclusion: "[N]ow we appear to have clear cut evidence from the other side that Manafort was doing precisely what was claimed: passing on confidential campaign data to a high-level Russian oligarch who Manafort knew from long experience was closely tied to Putin and the Russian intelligence services. There’s really no question about whether there was collusion. We have it right here in front of us."

MSNBC characterized it this way (transcription mine): "If this is the case, and Donald Trump's campaign was sharing polling data ... then Robert Mueller just might have an important piece of information about the intersection of the Trump political machine and Russian efforts to aid Donald Trump's campaign." 4

Collusion is not a legal term, but conspiracy IS -- regardless of whether the Trump Campaign actually got anything of value in return -- as Judge Andrew Napolitano, legal analyst for Fox News, reminds us in this interview with Shepard Smith:



UPDATE:
Reporting from Politico helps us understand what value there was in the polling data to the Russians:

Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio, who met with Mueller in early 2018, also worked for Manafort on Ukranian elections, narrowing the circle of participants.... After the [US] election, Fabrizio explained to Frontline how powerful his data was in identifying "Trump targets" who were ready to change direction in the upcoming election. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., did not inhibit himself from speculating that the polling data was put to direct use. "Did the Russians end up using this polling data in their efforts that took place later in the fall where they tried using the Internet Research Agency and other bots and other automated tools on social media to suppress, for example, the African-American vote?" Warner said.5
It certainly seems to fit. The Internet Research Agency has been shown to be an instrument of the GRU, with whom Kilimnik was a known affiliate. The polling data could have been used for targeting Russia's disinformation campaign.


My Conclusion

Question: Did the Trump Campaign conspire with the Russian government to install Donald Trump into the White House? -- I believe that answer is effectively yes, and for reasons which extend beyond the scope of this post.

Question: Was Donald Trump responsible for the conspiracy? -- I still don't know. What I do know, based on the above reporting, is that a guy who was $19MM in debt to a Russian oligarch offered to provide valuable insight into the Trump Campaign to get back in the black, and a former arms dealer-turned-enforcer/collections agent off his back.

It reads like a Cold War era espionage case -- some enlisted solider or sailor starts selling secrets to the Soviets as a solution to financial problems. For Manafort, it seems the motivation was in getting out from under Deripaska, not in actually getting Trump elected. Simply put, I think Manafort got himself into a position to have something to sell (Recall he was working as campaign chairman for free!) and was perhaps able to discern Russian interest. Does motive matter? Not necessarily, but it does seem to respond to the second question I asked above.

So we know there was conspiracy between campaign staff and people with ties to the Kremlin. But we don't yet appear to have the smoking gun that ties it all back to Trump in any way other than by Manafort's position on his campaign staff. But is that enough?

We may have enough when one considers the totality of circumstantial evidence: Don't forget that whole thing with Don Junior and the infamous meeting at Trump Tower. (And who was there with Don Jr., by the way? Why, Paul Manafort was!)


Image Credit: MSNBC. Emphasis mine.

Trump Jr. later told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "I did not collude with any foreign government and do not know of anyone who did." 6

All very exciting. But I'll bet Special Counsel Robert Mueller is going to make certain there's a solid link between the president and the Russians before sending a paddy wagon down Pennsylvania Avenue.


Is Polling Data Protected Information?

And by the way, is voter data worthy of such protection as to make its circulation outside of the United States a crime?

To answer this question, I tried calling the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives and Records Administration. My call went straight to voicemail.

Next, I opened a web chat session with USA.gov, asking the same question. The response I received was "Polling results are public information so it can be used by anyone anywhere." When I tried to dig a little deeper, I was referred to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

So, I called the FEC, where again, nobody answered -- simply a recording that said, "Due to unforseen circumstances." Seriously, that was the entire message.



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2019.01.04

Hostage Crisis

800,000 out of work




Image of a dumpster fire.
Ringing in the new year

President Trump not only continues to hold his own government hostage over budget to wall off the southwestern border, but now promises to sustain the shutdown for months or even years until he gets what he wants. 1  2  He's even talking about declaring a national emergency to get it built.

The same wall he told everybody Mexico would pay for is the reason close to a million federal civilians haven't worked in over two weeks. 3


My Conclusion

This is a hostage crisis. 800,000 federal workers are furloughed or working without pay, going by the number in today's The Washington Post reporting -- which is about 40 percent of the total Federal civilian workforce.4  How many of those 800,000 are just going to "tough it out" if this shutdown really does go for months? Probably not 800,000 of them. This kind of paralysis is the makings of an actual national emergency.

With our executive branch spiraling into oblivion and taking almost half of the federal workforce with him, it is up to our Congress to get this country back on track properly. The Democrats are leading the fight from the House of Representatives, 5 and the resolve of the smart Republicans in the Senate will continue to erode to the point that when it's all over and the next election cycle is reached, the American people will witness the utter destruction of the Republican Party. It's simple math: 40% of the federal workforce will not forget who fought to get them working again, and who failed their newly unemployed constituents. And the rest of us watched it all happen.

Here's the thing, though: we'll be lucky if that's all that happens. With so many Federal employees on furlough, what do you think our national security posture is right now? Yes, we still have the DOD, but the other intelligence services of the United States of America are brushing up their resumes and being advised by the OPM to trade labor for rent payments. 6  7  Homeland Security, Treasury, Justice, State departments are all affected. (By the way, the shutdown is probably not a diversion from the Mueller Investigation; the FBI is excepted from furlough.8)

This shutdown is headed toward becoming an actual threat to our national security, whether in the physical or electronic security dimension through the diminished capacities of federal agencies, or in the economic dimension as a function of market reaction. 9  10 

If we arrive at that point where something actually bad happens as a result of this stupid shutdown, how much is a fucking wall going to matter?



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2018.12.31

2018: And We Thought We Knew What a Dumpster Fire of a Year Could Be

We had no idea, really




2018: Just When We Thought We Knew What a Dumpster Fire of a Year Could Be
Dumpster fire

What if I told you in 2012 that in just a few years, the United States would see its first dictator-president in living memory actually hold his own government hostage over budget to wall off the southwestern border? 1

Would you have believed me?

 

What if I'd told you that The Washington Post would publish stories like this (emphasis mine)?

President Trump's year of lies, false statements and misleading claims started with some morning tweets.... [T]he start of a year of unprecedented deception during which Trump became increasingly unmoored from the truth. When 2018 began, the president had made 1,989 false and misleading claims, according to the Fact Checker's database, which tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president. By the end of the year, Trump had accumulated more than 7,000 untruths during his presidency -- averaging more than 15 erroneous claims a day during 2018, almost triple the rate from the year before. 2

... or this?

[The president's departing Chief of Staff John F. Kelly] defended those serving Trump as delivering him the right information, even if it might be disregarded. "It's never been: The president just wants to make a decision based on no knowledge and ignorance ," Kelly said.... [Kelly] was also more subtle than former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who a few weeks ago said Trump was "undisciplined, doesn't like to read" and tried to do illegal things but was often thrwarted by those around him .... The idea that Kelly regards his biggest success as standing in Trump's way is a pretty strong indictment of Trump as a person and of his presidency. 3

What if I told you that president would bring the dignity of his office down so far as to actually get laughed at while addressing the United Nations?

Would you have believed that?

 

I wouldn't have. Not in the new era of the transcendent President.

 

A couple of years ago I posited that the election cycle that put Donald Trump in the Oval Office could have the effect of energizing people to get involved in politics -- or at least become more aware of it and the associated issues -- and stop "phoning in" their votes -- if they bothered to vote at all.

At the close of 2018, I can say that it's certainly affected me. I've researched and written about much more national issues-oriented content than I had ever before. The FBI Investigation into Russian meddling in the election. Fusion GPS and the infamous dossier. Comey. The auto industry. Syria. Immigration. US Oil and the Iran nuclear deal. North Korea. Conservativism. I researched and wrote about them so I could have some understanding about the issues, form an opinion (my thoughts are carefully identified), and share it all with anyone who cared to read. My hobby has taken on a new dimension.

 

Personally, I believe that the President won't be allowed to move too far afield of his office. But, particularly in view of his latest tantrum over immigration, I find myself wondering if I'll be writing about much the same thing on the eve of 2020.

 

*sigh* So, here we are:

Welcome, 2019

We've been through this enough
It gets rough but there's nowhere to run
This is where we belong
We are strong, we can never give up



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2018.12.21

US to leave Syria

...and everybody's angry




President Trump
  President Trump

In April I wrote a lengthy post about Syria. Syria was in the news at the time because the United States led coalition forces to bomb runways which intelligence indicated had been used by Syrian forces to deliver chemical weapons on its own people. 1

According to my research, the US had been involved in Syria's civil war, supporting forces opposed to President al-Assad -- most notably the Kurds which occupied the northern third of the country at the time, plus Rebel and Turkish forces in pockets scattered across the lands to the south, under Russia-supported Syrian military control.

ISIS was operating in both major areas, and provided plausible cover for our forces and others aligned with us to operate in the region.


The Announcement

Much to everyone's surprise, President Trump announced that the US had beaten ISIS, and so we were withrdawing from Syria immediately.

News reports suggest the decision was the result of a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week. Erdogan had been threatening to launch a military operation U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels. 2 (Recall that Turkey shares its southern border with Syria, and that the area the Kurds controlled as of April stretched along almost the entire length of that border.)

The rationale for the withdrawal appears to simply be that the ISIS threat has declined significantly -- to the point where the terrorists control only 1% of the territory it had previously. Despite repeated attempts by Secretary of Defense Gen. Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and national security advisor John Bolton to convince the president to find some middle ground, the president's position remained fixed. News of the decision was announced by the White House on Wednesday morning.


Fallout

The Washington Post quoted one military analyst as saying a US withdrawal will make relations with Iran more difficult, because the US will be viewed as weak. Indeed, the same articla includes a quote from a top Iranian military official: "The Americans have come to the conclusion that they can exercise power neither in Iraq and Syria nor in the entire region," said Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour, the commander of ground forces of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, at a news conference in Tehran." 3

The same reporting suggests the US' departure presents opportunity for other forces to wrest control of the northern territory -- from Iran to the east or from Turkey to the North. An Iranian incursion could impact Israel and Iraq -- some analysts believe Iran might pressure the US to leave Iraq for the same reason as it's leaving Syria -- while the threat of Turkish aggression has forced the Syrian Kurds to hope for a deal with Assad.


Secretary of Defense Resigns

Meanwhile here at home, likely frustrated by the president's unwillingness to discuss US troop withdrawl from Syria, Secretary of Defense Mattis has tendered his resignation to the White House. 4

The letter reads in part, "My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. . . . Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position."

Mattis' resignation alarmed Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill. "To [Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.,] the letter 'makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.' He also pressed for more oversight of the executive branch by Congress." 5

The Washsington Post characterized Congress' response this way: "[F]or many members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats — and the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, it was an unmitigated disaster. None was officially informed in advance of Trump’s announcement, made on Twitter early Wednesday. Most warned that Turkey, whose troops were poised on the border waiting for U.S. forces to leave, would slaughter U.S. Kurdish allies. Overall, they said, it was nothing less than a capitulation to the other two powers on the ground in Syria — Russia and Iran." 6


US Envoy McGurk Resigns

Moments ago, The Washington Post broke the story that US Envoy to the Anti-ISIS Coalition Brett McGurk has resigned "in protest of President Trump's decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria." The move was confirmed by a State Department official and is effective December 31st. 7


Russian Reaction

On news of the US plan to withdraw, President Putin remarked, "Let’s not forget that the troops' presence has been illegitimate. It hasn’t been vetted by the United Nations Security Council," Putin said. "A military contingent can only be present on the Security Council's approval or by the Syrian government's invitation. There was neither, so if the United States decided to withdraw its contingent they did the right thing." 8


My Conclusion

In my opinion, President Trump's decision to immediately withdraw from Syria is two things: first, it is consistent with his "America First" platform. Apparently, if the US is not realizing a direct profit from our presence there, it's time to move on. Second, it is clearly expected to destabilize what would traditionally have been termed "US interests" in the region.

Except, we apparently don't care about that anymore. Please pardon my "French" here, but the Syrian Kurds are going to get completely fucked when we leave. Gen. Mattis understands this to the point where he even included it in his resignation letter. The reporting I read suggests they're either going to be killed by invasion from the north or by invasion from the east. (And by the way, good luck negotiating with al-Assad. He'll likely shower them with sarin before the others come for them. Or he'll wait until the others invade, then make them all a Chlorine cocktail.)

What goes around comes around, Mr. President. What your advisors have been trying to tell you over the past few days is simply that not everything we do in the Middle East should necessarily be transactional. Allies and treaties aren't necessarily transactional. And leaving the Kurds hanging is bad business. Or is it that you're sending a message to the rest of the world that we want our protection money?

Being in Syria -- perhaps illegally, as President Putin maintains -- seems to have been good for Iraq and good for Israel (plus it gave us a strategic presence southwest of Russia.) When it comes time for something we want or need from either, will our abrupt departure from Syria come back to bite?



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2018.11.30

Big Week for the Mueller Investigation

Liar Liar Pants on Fire




FBI Special Council Robert S. Mueller III, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort
  FBI Special Council Robert S. Mueller III, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort

It's been quite a week for the FBI investigation into President Trump and Russia's interference in the 2016 elections, with two news stories emerging this week regarding the investigation that had otherwise been quiet for a while.

Boiled down, both Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen had fibbed to the FBI during the course of its investigation.

For Manafort, it could mean his deal with federal prosecutors is in jeopardy, because prosecutors charge he lied to investigators even after having reached a plea agreement. 1 Cohen, on the other hand, pled guilty to lying to Congress, saying that he was trying to keep his story aligned with what Mr. Trump was telling the news.

President Trump commented on Cohen this morning, calling him "weak" and saying that he was out to save his own skin. According to The Washington Post, the president is identified as "Individual 1" in Cohen's guilty plea.2

The same report characterized the president as "a central figure of [the] probe into whether Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign."



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2018.11.28

On Auto-Pilot

The State of the American Auto Industry




The General Motors logo.
  The General Motors logo

The past couple of weeks saw announcements from Ford Motor Company and from General Motors which signaled major changes for the American automobile manufacturing industry.


The Announcements

Ford's announcement was sharply critical of the Trump Administration, blaming it for over $1BB in losses and added costs due to the president's trade war with China.1

Ford had previously announced that it was planning to cease production of all sedans except the Ford Mustang, and would concentrate on the SUV and truck markets. 2 Personally, I was stunned at this reporting; I didn't believe it.

This week GM followed suit, with the announcement that it was closing several production plants in the Great Lakes region. These plants are all responsible for manufacturing sedans from its Buick, Cadillac, and Chevrolet lines.


The Blame Game

Ironically, even though Ford, not GM, was quick to blame Trump's trade war for a share of it's problems, it's the GM plant closings that are causing a furor. Congressmen who represent the areas that will be affected by GM's decision are separately angry with GM and accusing the president of lying to their constituents:

Congressman Tim Ryan, who represents Lordstown as part of Ohio’s 13th District, also blamed President Trump for the job losses, pointing out that Trump had promised workers in the region that jobs were “all coming back” when he visited last year.

"The Valley has been yearning for the Trump Administration to come here, roll up their sleeves and help us fight for this recovery," Ryan said in a statement Monday. "What we've gotten instead are broken promises and petty tweets. Corporations like General Motors and the President himself are the only ones benefiting from this economy." 3

 

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said the move will be disastrous for the region around Youngstown, Ohio, east of Cleveland, where GM is one of the area's few remaining industrial anchors.

"GM received record tax breaks as a result of the GOP's tax bill last year, and has eliminated jobs instead of using that tax windfall to invest in American workers," he said in a statement. 4

According to New York Times reporting, "the corporate tax cuts enacted last year.... championed by Mr. Trump and his party, saved G.M. $157 million in federal taxes in the first nine months of the year, according to the company’s most recent quarterly earnings report. 5  6


The GM Bailout

The Trump Administration is being especially tough on GM because it had filed for one of the largest Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings in U.S. history ten years ago. A Wikipedia article pins the final cost to the U.S. Treasury at between $11BB- $12BB, after an initial investment of $51BB. 7. According to Reuters reporting, President Trump this morning retweeted this remark: "If GM doesn’t want to keep their jobs in the United States, they should pay back the $11.2 billion bailout that was funded by the American taxpayer." The tweet was originated by the account of a Trump supporter. 8. GM's move prompted direct communication to GM CEO Mary Barra from both President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.


Consumer Preference

The shift away from sedans is a response to consumer tastes. The Washington Post, in a previously cited report, stated that "almost 65 percent of new vehicles sold in the U.S. [in October] were trucks or SUVs. That figure was about 50 percent cars just five years ago." Citi analyst Itay Michaeli was quoted as saying "We estimate sedans operate at a significant loss, hence the need for classic restructuring."


Could This Just Be About Bargaining With the Union?

Finally, this from The New York Times report (previously cited):

G.M., Ford and Fiat Chrysler are all poised to negotiate new labor contracts next year. Some of the affected G.M. plants could resume production, depending on the outcome of the bargaining. Carmakers often agree to keep plants open in exchange for other concessions from the union.




My Conclusion

I'm dismissing President Trump's behavior as posturing. He tells the people what they want to hear while on the campaign trail, gets into a pissing contest with China over trade and points the finger at GM once things go bad because he won't take responsibility for the administration's part in the mess. I'm sure he sees GM's strategy as a betrayal of his "America First" platform, TARP bailout and giant GOP tax break aside.

Perhaps this is exactly why GM did not call the president out on his trade war -- Barra had over 11 billion reasons to bite her tongue. Well, that, and because they have a presence in China -- it's where the Buick Envision is built.

I believe the president is only involved because Barra is making him look bad. He's on record as having told American manufacturing that jobs were being created. Barra is now taking away over 11,000 of them.

When you look at the entire industry, it's hard to deny that sales of mid-size passenger cars -- sedans -- are all heading south. Despite the bailout and the tax breaks, when one considers the energy poured into making sedans for so many years, it makes sense it's going to take some time to get those plants turning out products people are willing to pay for. Businesses have to react to supply and demand. And that has nothing at all to do with bailouts and tax breaks. Speaking of demand, America's appetites for SUVs and trucks has returned because gas prices have been low. If you set your wayback machine to 1979, Chrysler made the "K car" (a nice Reliant automobile!) in response to record high gas prices.

Still, I'm somewhat encouraged by the comment from The New York Times. If true, this could simply mean that GM and Ford are positioning themselves for negotiations and that the final result could be very different from what we're seeing in the news now.

Idling plants isn't quite the same as closing them, but the impact on the people and the areas seems about the same; call it what you want, unemployment is unemployment. And it sucks. It also sucks for consumers who own those cars. I own one of the models on the GM hit list. It's the most comfortable car I've ever owned. It's a few years old, but I wasn't even thinking about selling it for something new -- now I have to consider the availability of parts in addition to general maintenance expectations. I likely also have to factor the same into what sort of trade-in value it may command on the lot. IF it comes to pass.

Reminds me of when GM killed off the Oldsmobile line. My city was home to a GM plant that built some Oldsmobile models. I remember seeing them on the road and wondering how the owners felt about the brand going away.

Well, now I know.

My bottom line here is that if people aren't buying sedans, there's no point in building them. I view this as the manufacturers reacting to demand, nothing more. President Trump can make as much hay of it and the bailout and the tax breaks all he likes; about the only thing he could do that actually would make a difference is drive gas prices up to retard the American appetite for trucks and SUVs, creating a renewed demand for smaller, sippish sedans. But even that drastic measure would only go so far -- the quality and performance of modern electric engines is supposedly a factor in GM's decision to idle the plants in their plan. (Among the models being killed off is the Chevrolet Volt, because electric engine technology has improved to the point where producing the Volt doesn't make sense any longer.) If GM is betting big on electric, it still does those plants no good in the short term -- they'd have to be retooled anyway regardless if they're going to make electric cars or giant SUV's, assuming sufficient demand is there to retool them at all.

I think new opportunities are coming our way, but unfortunately we're caught up in the news of the moment, which is focused on what must be lost before we gain. I'm hurt too -- my car is going away. And, sadly, for 11,000 Americans, their jobs are going away.



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2018.11.06

Commentary: The Origins of Conservativism?

Tolerance for Change




Sen. Cruz and Rep. O'Rourke. Image Credit: ABC News
  Sen. Cruz (R) and Rep. O'Rourke (D). Image credit: ABC News

I'm writing this under the topic of politics, but I think politics is just an expression of something more... it's a dimension of a bigger thing. How I got here is, well, it's just plain weird. But I can't shake the idea that it's how many get here-- to political conservatism, I mean.

This is an exploration about how people become conservative. And I'm trying to choose my words carefully, because it's not a thing that happens to everyone; the "Yuppies" of the 80s would likely be called Conservatives today, and the "Hippies" of the 60's -- the definition of liberal in their time -- likely never crossed into convservativism. This is speculation, of course. I've no footnotes or endnotes or references in this post. It's all commentary.

I awoke this morning from a dream. And in this dream, I was visiting a dear friend of mine, whom in real life is in a committed relationship with a really smart and fun woman. The couple came to my wedding in the Florida Keys, and we love them both. Anyway, in my dream, I was at a party, I think, and my friend was there. We were all laughing and having a good time, and in a private moment he asked me if I would marry him for a day.

Marry him for a day? What does that mean? What happens when you marry someone for a day? And anyway, he knows I'm already married! And he's... essentially married... both of us are married to women... what did he mean?

I awoke feeling a bit disturbed and confused, because in my dream I was confronted with a strange concept. Awkwardness aside -- I refused him and he was disappointed, and so I brought with me into the waking state the feeling that I'd upset a good friend -- I sat up to sort of review the imaginary event. And that's when I recalled seeing a cartoon on social media that mentioned the term "gender-fluid." What does that mean? It's not a term that was used when we were growing up and learning how to operate in the world. It wasn't... it wasn't part of our world.

It wasn't part of our world.

(By the way, I've been having some weird dreams lately. The night before last, I had dreamed about seeing a teeny snake made from different organisms and had minute copper wires visible beneath its eggy white exterior. But I digress.)

Last night I went with my family to a music store. I mostly drooled over the drum sets and the guitars. Kiddo, who is 12, was all over the... I'll call them drum machines, but that's not really what they are. The name of the product is "Launchpad." It's an electronic device that can be used to make different sounds and arrange them using special software and a laptop computer. It doesn't have keys like a piano. It has a grid of white squares. It appears to possess nothing that would clue you into its purpose of music production --- it resembles a game board more than any kind of instrument. My wife was doing her best to try to keep up with kiddo as she strived to explain it, and she (my wife) was using a kind of verbal symbolism to represent the concepts. Once again, because it wasn't part of our world.

Weirdly, perhaps I've found the esssence of conservativism here. I've given you examples of things -- imaginary or real -- that I simply can't parse, at least in the context of my life experiences.

Have you wondered why young people are typically considered liberal and older people are typically conservative? Have you thought about why it was that the UK's infamous "Brexit" was a fight between younger and older Britons?

What it is that changes a person's political attitudes as one ages?

I've had front row seats to the absolute shitshow that is state politics in Texas this year. And I've written about how I've felt about the state senate race in particular, though I've seen advertising for several races. I found the incumbent Lt. Governor's ads particularly... insightful, because everything he's trying to push -- including the fear -- is being done against a background of good old... oldness. He's driving a restored 1940's pickup truck. He's in a rocking chair on a porch with a dog at his side. He might as well be wearing a straw hat while saying, "Do you remember when Texas was founded on we-do-what- we-want-because-we're-Texas principles? Pepperidge Farm remembers." The ad is a giant appeal to older people -- people who can relate to that 1940's pickup truck. That old truck says very clearly that he's not about change. He's about the old times, the old ways. He's the choice of the people who gave up.

Weirdly, I get it. The aging population has had to put up with a lot of shit over their lifetimes. Specifically my parents' generation. Look how different everything is now -- they've had to figure out how to live in the computer age -- and evolve with mobile technology. Some have, others have not. My mother is almost 80 and she's had an iPhone for several years. She knows how to do maybe two things with that phone, and that's IT. I know others her age who have embraced the technology and use it to their advantage. People get tired. I'm nearly 50 and I don't know what the fuck "gender fluid" means (Do I add it to my car to make it more masculine?) just like I didn't recognize that thing in the music store last night as an instrument. So I can see the attraction to an ad that features an old tractor in the background and driving a 1940's Chevrolet. That ad is not about issues. It's about tugging at the heartstrings of people who miss their old trucks -- made back when life wasn't as complicated as it is today. That desire is the dividing line. That's what separates the young and old. Religious beliefs aside, progress -- rather, peoples' capacity to tolerate it -- is what makes the difference.

And so this is why we have the cycle we have. We will always have liberals and conservatives in some form, using some label, because as a society we have youth, we have adults, we have elderly. And all of us have a definite tolerance for change. The youth have a greater appetite for it than do the elderly. Mapped out, people on and near university campuses and urban areas tend to be younger and to vote more liberal; rural area populations tend to be older and vote more conservatively -- those people also remember what their party once stood for. The campaign ads are trying to appeal to certain people in between.



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2018.11.03

UPDATE: Texas Senatorial Race: Immigration

All Eyes on Texas




Sen. Cruz and Rep. O'Rourke. Image Credit: ABC News
  Sen. Cruz (R) and Rep. O'Rourke (D). Image credit: ABC News

Immigration -- and the infamous wall -- have been very hot topics throughout the Trump Administration's tenure.

With mid-term elections fast approaching, the topic is as hot in Texas as is the summer weather. After writing about the first senatorial debate, I promised myself I'd dig more into the issue of immigration. So I'm approaching it using the debate to level-set and dig into the topics addressed therein.


Family Separation at the Border was a Deterrent Tactic

I read an opinion article in The Washington Post this morning which stated, in part, that the Trump Administration's family separation tactic was implemented as a deterrent to immigration, and that deterrent is ineffective. The administration has also resorted to bullying the source countries into deterring their citizens from coming north. Republicans have politicized the issue in an effort to encourage Republican turnout at the polls: 1

Republicans are running dozens of ads across the country that paint undocumented immigrants as violent criminal invaders. Trump tweets regularly that countries to our south are deliberately unleashing them on us. This latter idea is foundational to Trumpism: In his announcement speech, he didn’t merely slime Mexicans as rapists; he also repeatedly said Mexico is sending them, which is why he vowed to get revenge by forcing Mexico to pay for a wall.
As a class, Republicans appear to be peddling fear to voters -- they're not only embracing Trumpism, they're "doubling down" on it (it's become such a popular term during this administration). I saw an ad by the incumbent Lt. Governor of Texas telling people the Democrats want to take away their guns and turn Texas into California. (Dear Idiots, if the Democrats didn't take away your guns while there was a Democrat in the White House AND a Democrat majority in the Senate, they're probably not going to do it when the Republicans control both the White House and the Senate.) And yes, immigration is also mentioned in his first sentence. 2

And Senator Cruz is not about to play above board, either -- I've already mentioned how his campaign solicited contributions in envelopes marked "SUMMONS ENCLOSED - OPEN IMMEDIATELY." 3




Sen. Cruz' Argument is About Border Security and Deportation

In his debate with Rep. Beto O'Rourke in mid-September, Sen. Cruz stated: "I think when it comes to immigration, we need to do everything humanly possible to secure the border. That means building a wall, that means technology, that means infrastructure, that means boots on the ground. And we can do all of that at the same time that we are welcoming and we are celebrating legal immigrants." 4

Cruz said nothing about the people who are already here, which was Rep. O'Rourke's focus -- giving a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country, many of whom are doing jobs Americans simply don't want to do. (To offer some context for that number: The population of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is approximately 8 million (an estimate in 2017 placed it at 7.4MM. In July, my realtor told me that an estimated 400 people were moving to the metroplex daily. So deporting 11 million illegal immigrants would be akin to deporting the entire population of the metroplex plus another 3 million.)

Of course, one might callously remark that there's nothing to be gained in helping them because they're not voters, nor is it likely they would be before the incumbent is out of office.


DREAMers and DACA

There's been a lot of talk about a group of people who are being called "dreamers." The term, correctly written as "DREAMers", refer to people who would have qualified under the DREAM Act 5.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act (S.1291) legislation was introduced in 2001 as a bipartisan bill in the Senate. The legislative goal was to provide a means for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to gain a pathway to permanent legal status; provided those individuals achieved certain milestones, including:
  • Attending or graduating from an institution of higher learning;
  • Be of a certain age to apply;
  • Be physically present in the U.S. for a certain number of years;
  • Have good moral character; and,
  • Not have violated other immigration laws

DREAMers are college kids "who have kept their noses clean," as my dad would say. They had assimilated into the US culture and were educated by US schools. As LawLogix explains, there have been at least 21 subsequent bills introduced since the original DREAM legislation was proposed in 2001.

The Department of Homeland Security implemented a program in 2012 somewhat resembling the DREAM Act bill called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. While DACA stops short of providing DREAMers and others here on expired visas a pathway to citizenship, it does extend their stay in the US in two-year increments as long as certain criteria are met -- including a criminal history review. DACA was originally introduced as a strategem for reducing the caseload on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) by identifying the biggest threats to national security and public safety in immigration 6.

To qualify for DACA, applicants must meet the following criteria:
  • On June 15, 2012 or before, was under the age of 31;
  • Arrived in the U.S. before reaching age 16;
  • Lived continuously (without interruption) in the U.S. since Jun 15, 2007 to the time of DACA filing;
  • Physically present in the U.S. on June 15, 2012 and at the time of DACA filing;
  • Entered without inspection before June 15, 2012, or lawful immigration status expired as of June 15, 2012;
  • Is currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, a GED certificate, or honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the U.S.;
  • Has not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more other misdemeanors, and does not pose any threat to national security or public safety.

I perceive some barriers to both of these programs. The DREAM Act bill required applications to be attending college. Full-ride scholarships aside, I don't know anybody who can afford to pay cash to send their kids to college, and so I should think it would be difficult at best for anyone doing the jobs Americans don't want to do (not that 11 million are ALL doing those jobs) to save enough to send their kids to college without use of Federal student loans -- and those loans required recipients to be "on the grid" at the very least -- they also required me to prove I had registered for the Selective Service program ("the draft"). DACA is more lenient, in that it required the applicant to be in school or have graduated with a high school diploma or a GED, or be an honorably discharged veteran. I should check with a military recruiter about this, but I guess that as long as the kid has a social security number, there's essentially no barrier to entry into the armed forces. (USA TODAY reported in February of this year that there are 900 DREAMers serving in the military. According to Wikipedia, over 1.3MM were serving on active duty.) 7  8


Rep. O'Rourke's Argument Supports The DREAM Act Bills

The quote from Sen. Cruz was in response to the first question of the debate which was posed to Rep. O'Rourke (transcription mine).

Moderator: "You said last week, Representative, that you want citizenship for DREAMers today, and yet others who've applied to come to America continue to wait. Senator Cruz has said he doesn't support a path to citizenship for DREAMers, which means they could be sent back to a country they've never known. Who's right, Representative?"

O'Rourke: "My wife Amy and I were in Booker, Texas ... and the saludatorian from Booker High School had just been deported back to his country of origin... he'd just been sent back to a country whose language he didn't speak, where he no longer had family connections, where if he was successful against those long odds, he'd be successful there, for that place and not here, for Texas. There is no better people than those of us here in this state ... the defining border experience, the defining immigrant experience and state to rewrite our immigration laws in our own image. And to ensure that we begin by freeing DREAMers from the fear of deportation by making them US citizens so they can contribute to their full potential, to the success not just of themselves and their families, but to this country. The economists who have studied it have said that we will lose hundreds of billions of dollars to the negative if we deport them; we will gain hundreds of billions to the positive if we keep them here. Senator Cruz has promised to deport each and every single DREAMer. That cannot be the way Texas leads on this important issue."

Congressman O'Rourke made several great points in support of the DREAM Act bills. One observed the social impact of deportation -- the boy from Booker High School was being sent to a country where he didn't speak the language and had no support. But I think the stronger point was the economic one.

O'Rourke valued the economic impact at hundreds of billions of dollars. Does that make sense?

'Hundreds of Billions of Dollars'

If you're talking about the earning potential of 11 million people, well, each dollar they earn amounts to 11 million dollars; if each made $50,000, that's $550 billion -- which is hundreds of billions of dollars.

In February of this year, USA TODAY reported the number of DREAMers -- that is, people who would have qualified for the DREAM Act had it passed -- at 3.8MM. It also reported the DREAMer typically arrived in the US at age 6 and was presently about 25 years old 8. If we were to assume each of these people, at age 25, was making $20,000 per year -- a very low number -- then they're each making $400,000 over 20 years, or over $1.5 trillion.

For Beto to claim that the state of Texas would be missing out on hundreds of billions of dollars is a plausible claim, based on the simple math above. Obviously there are plenty of other factors. Every single person in that 3.8 million is not going to earn only $20,000 per year for 20 years. Also, my simple artithmetic is free from complex considerations that factor into economic models (like inflation).


UPDATE: Why Is Immigration an Issue NOW?

Why do you suppose immigration is such a hot issue this political season?

The Washington Post published an interesting article answering this very question yesterday. They report Nationalism took center stage because Republicans' plans for a middle-class tax break didn't materialize:

[A]s the midterm campaign season was heating up, the [2017] tax law was dropping in the polls.... Republicans who'd planned to make it the centerpiece of their campaigns began to look elsewhere... Trump made clear that he wanted a proposal to be made public in October so voters would know that Republicans planned to continue cutting taxes, creating a contrast with Democrats. Congressional Republicans never readied a plan.... Now, with their 2018 tax plans having failed to come to fruition, and their 2017 tax law still polling poorly, Trump and a number of other Republicans have made a hard pivot away from economics and into nationalism, a debate with heavy racial overtones meant to energize the conservative base ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections. 9


Militias

Heeding the president's clarion call for border security, militia groups stand ready to... whoop some ass, I guess. Reporting from The Washington Post identified the leaders of two such groups based in Texas, who are standing by to mobilize to the border area within hours. The same report also recounted interviews with local property owners, some of whom would not allow militia groups on their lands; one notable exception was the owner of a property the size of Rhode Island. 10

The article brings to light another dimension of the border spectacle: the land owners. I'm reminded of stories of Civil War soldiers gorging themselves on fruit from the trees of property owners (and making themselves sick on them). I don't know how fertile the land is there, or what can be grown on it if anything. My point is the militias and immigrants alike are probably doing some sort of property damage -- I think the article mentioned one property owner with a shed or an outbuilding that gets broken into all the time by immigrants looking for shelter. Naturally, these owners are going to want some sort of law enforcement protection for their lands and property -- not necessarily the same mission as immigration and border patrol, but definitely related.


My Conclusion

Ultimately, the Senator and the Congressman were talking about two different things. Senator Cruz was talking about border defense; Rep. O'Rourke was talking about deportation vs. paths to citizenship. During his response, the Congressman asserted that Sen. Cruz favored deportation, and the Senator failed to dispute it, simply saying "Legal good, illegal bad."

Personally, I agree with "Legal good, illegal bad;" but I also agree with allowing people who were brought here as children to have a path to citizenship -- you can't' hold these people responsible for what their parents did. I believe in the requirements of the DREAM Act bill. They seem completely reasonable to me. It also seems reasonable that the US, like its companies, should work to retain good people who make good contributions to its businesses.

In April,1980, the Cuban government allowed all of its citizens wishing to emigrate to the US to depart from a port west of Havana. It was later learned that Castro had used the event to empty his prisons.

I'm not aware of any other countries doing this, but I think it's important to note that it has happened -- nearly 40 years ago. Personally, I don't think a wall is necessary. I don't think "boots on the ground" -- which I interpreted as US military presence -- are necessary. If people are determined to get into the United States illegally, they're going to get in. By the way, property owners in the border area have a right to protect their property -- from illegal immigrants and vigilantes alike. Property rights aside, we should remember that the United States is a nation of immigrants. We became the greatest nation on earth. To protect our borders in such a Draconian fashion runs counter to the the ideal of The New Colossus: 9

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

If the United States is not prepared to live up to the ideal that we advertise to the world with Lady Liberty, then perhaps Lady Liberty is as irrelevant, or offensive, as the commemorations to the soldiers of the Confederate Army.

We can't have it both ways, Texas. We can vote for isolationism and exclusion, or we can vote for greatness, prosperity, and the American ideal.

Regarding the update, if immigration is only a platorm for Republicans this year because their apology to the middle class fell flat, the candidates' positions are still telling: Cruz is toeing the party line 150%. O'Rourke takes the moral high road, despite Cruz' efforts to paint him as a liberal (In Texas, it seems there are Republicans and there are liberals, if Republican campaign ads are to be believed).

Also, the WaPo article made me realize that, in all of these attack ads, there's not much mention of Democrats' stance on taxation, which has been a bullet in Republicans' belts forever. Given the unpopularity of their 2017 mega-gift to the rich, most PACs likely don't dare load it in their chambers --- they're likely to shoot themselves in the feet.



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2018.10.12

Texas Senatorial Race: Cruz vs O'Rourke

All Eyes on Texas




Sen. Cruz and Rep. O'Rourke. Image Credit: ABC News
  Sen. Cruz (R) and Rep. O'Rourke (D). Image credit: ABC News

The Dallas NBC station hosted a debate between US Senator Ted Cruz (R) and Representative Beto O'Rourke (D) in September.

I learned a lot in that debate.

I’ve come to feel that I can identify more closely with more of Rep. O’Rourke‘s positions then I can with Senator Cruz’ positions. I think they’re both relatively extreme for my tastes, but I think it would be easier for O’Rourke to come toward the center on some of his issues than it would for Senator Cruz to do the same.

The point which seemed to resonate the most with me was about illegal immigration -- the "dreamers." Cruz echoed conservatives' zero-tolerance stance and the president's call for a wall; O'Rourke's position is softer, because he supports giving "dreamers" a path to citizenship. O'Rourke told Stephen Colbert: "We don’t need walls, we can have smart security solutions, and we can free DREAMers from the fear of deportation by making them U.S. citizens today so they can contribute to their maximum capacity, to their full potential, and we can move forward in that manner, making sure we’re secure, and making sure that we live up to our values and ideals." 1 Advantage: Beto.

The New Yorker described the debate this way: "The competition between O’Rourke, a congressman from El Paso, and Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, pits progressive idealism and a nearly Tom Hanksian earnestness against unctuousness and the kind of fearful Tea Party recriminations that paved Cruz’s path to the Senate, in 2012." 2.

In the same article, another observation: "[One] sees a path to victory in broadening the sense of possibility among the public and expanding the electorate; the other is attempting to win even if it means pandering to the base concerns of the one he already has."

If you missed it, you can watch it here. NBC News did some fact-checking during the debate; you can read that here. The Dallas News's fact check article is right here. PolitiFact also did some fact-checking; you can find that published in The Statesman here.

Also, I am appalled by some of the tactics Sen. Cruz has employed to solicit donations. I find them underhanded and dishonest, designed to confuse people into pledging funds3.



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2018.08.25

UPDATED: Senator McCain Discontinues Brain Cancer Treatments

Sad for the hero, sad for the nation




Sen. John McCain
  Sen. John McCain

I was stunned and saddened to read reporting from The Washington Post that broke the news of Sen. McCain's decision to end treatments for his glioblastoma, a rare and sometimes untreatable cancer in the brain.

I have a soft spot for Sen. McCain, because he was a Navy pilot who was captured and held as a POW during the Vietnam War, and because he was born at Coco Solo, Republic of Panama-- I lived not far from there during my time on Active Duty.

Sen. McCain brought a unique understanding to especially the Senate Committee on Armed Services. His experience absolutely has my respect.

I recall the early presidential race between Senators Obama and McCain, and recall how much I loved that they were both moderates -- they were actually trading votes -- at least until the Republican Party forced Gov. Palin on him as a running mate. We didn't see the normal-guy-I-liked McCain again until his concession speech. Pity. I think a President McCain could have been amazing.

But today, in our age of daily WTF-DID-TRUMP-JUST-TWEET?!, I am so, so sorry to see Sen. McCain's starlight fading.

Fair winds and following seas, Senator McCain.

 

UPDATE: Sen. McCain passed away a few hours after I published this.



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2018.05.15

What I want to learn next

Things to make me go, 'Hmm...'




There's been much in the news lately about President Trump's decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and the outrage it has sparked among Palestinians.

I want to learn more about the tensions in the Gaza Strip, and why Israel is such a close ally of the United States.

Based on the reading I've been doing on other matters pertaining to the US and the world (that is, the relationship the United States has with other countries), It's not difficult for me to imagine that the move of the embassy offers some "advantage." (The president's motivators are well known to the world.)



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2018.05.09

A Perfect Storm

The intersection of the Stormy Daniels Affair and the FBI Russia Investigation




President Trump, from his official photo.
President Trump

 

The improbable intersection of President Trump's Stormy Daniels debacle and the FBI investigation into Russian collusion with Candidate Trump's team is...

Michael Cohen.

Mr. Cohen, infamously known as Mr. Trump's "fixer," is at the center of both worlds and, of late, at the center of media attention.

 

Essential Consultants

Mr. Cohen set up a shell company called Essential Consultants through which he paid Ms. Daniels the hush money and through which he received a half million dollars in payments from Columbus Nova, a company owned by billionaire Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. From The Washington Post1

The company’s confirmation came after Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, circulated on Twitter a document purporting to show a detailed accounting of wire transfers made to Essential Consultants, a company established by Cohen in October 2016.

The payments listed in the document began in the months after Cohen paid $130,000 to Daniels just before the November 2016 election, as part of an agreement that required her to not speak publicly about an affair she says she had with Trump a decade earlier.

In the document, Avenatti claims that Cohen received $500,000 from Columbus Nova between January 2017 and August 2017.

Avenatti did not provide supporting documentation for his claims, though Columbus Nova and AT&T, another company named in the document, both released statements in the hours after Avenatti's disclosure confirming that they had business relationships with Cohen.


 

Open for Business

The Washington Post article digs deeper into other companies involved with Essential Consultants. It certainly seems this intersection is bigger than just Daniels and Russia -- Cohen is where companies go to get VIP backstage passes to the whole Trump sh!tshow.

The image below might offer some assitance in tracking along: 2


Look closely at the transactions originating from the blue boxes. Reporting from The Washington Post certainly seems to infer these payments were made to get access to President Trump and for lucrative government contracts:

Shortly after the last transaction from Novartis identified by Avenatti, in January, Trump met with executives including the incoming CEO of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Korea Aerospace is in contention for a multibillion-dollar joint contract with Lockheed Martin to produce jet trainers for the U.S. Air Force. A company representative confirmed paying the Cohen company, but said the payments were to provide legal consulting to assist in the company’s reorganization of its "internal accounting system" and did not involve the Air Force deal or other lobbying. 1

The document from Avenatti says AT&T paid Cohen $50,000 a month for four months starting in October 2017, just weeks before Trump’s Justice Department filed suit to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. . . . A spokesman for AT&T confirmed that the company engaged Essential Consultants, a company formed by Cohen in early 2017 "to provide insights into understanding the new administration." 2

Mr. Trump is open for business. And for that kind of access, you need.... an essential consultant.



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2018.05.07

US Sanctions Against Iran Seem Good for US Oil

The Art of the Deal




President Trump, from his official photo.
President Trump

 

Three years ago, Iran agreed to inspections and limitations regarding its nuclear program under a pact with the United States, Russia, China, Britain and Germany. These nations in turn agreed to remove restrictions on Iranian oil sales among other economic activities, including foreign investment opportunities. Under the agreement brokered by the Obama Administration, economic sanctions were lifted, and Iran's oil sales and imports of nonagricultural products skyrocketed. 1 2

As part of that deal, the United States waived certain restrictions allowing American companies to conduct business directly through the Central Bank of Iran.

Today Iran, and countries who do business with the US and Iran, including the signatories of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, are concerned about the expiration of the waiver this coming weekend. The Washington Post continued:

The price of West Texas Intermediate crude topped $70 a barrel Monday for the first time since 2014 amid fears that renewed U.S. sanctions would require international companies to buy less Iranian oil or face stiff penalties.

According to October, 2017 BBC reporting, The Trump Administration asserts that Iran broke parts of the agreement, including heavy-water limits and access to international inspectors, and called for Congress to renegotiate the deal Mr. Trump considered too lenient. Current reporting from The New York Times characterized those violations as "minor infractions that were quickly rectified." 3

The Times article also stated that senior officials from Britain, France and Germany had all traveled to Washington recently to try to convince the Trump Administration to keep the nuclear deal, though flawed, in place. Particularly President Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany "suggested the West could impose new sanctions against Iran's ballistic missile development and armed support for the Syrian regime" among others, rather than discard the deal in its entirety. The same reporting cited an unidentified senior European diplomat who told reporters today that it was "pretty obvious" Mr. Trump would not continue to waive the sanctions.

Political commentary suggests that the US is being encouraged by regional allies to abandon the deal with Iran simply because it's a deal with Iran -- an accord that could lead to closer ties between Washington and Tehran that the Saudis cannot abide.4

Iranian oil exports are estimated to be about 2.6 million barrels per day. Renewed sanctions could cut as much as 20% of those sales within months -- sales which account for over 60 percent of Iran's total export revenue. The same reporting from The Washington Post claimed the Trump Administration would begin asking oil traders to cut their consumption of Iranian crude, and could levy penalties on those countries who do not comply.


Comment

The Times article quoted President Macron as saying he believed President Trump would "get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons." I can think of three:

  1. Trump First: The 2015 deal was orchestrated by the Obama Administration, and President Trump can't let that stand despite the pleas of our European allies. He is driven to make a deal that's bigger and better and bears the Trump name;
  2. America First: reducing the ready global supply of crude oil to make American oil more attractive to the market (partly through coercion);
  3. To punish Iran for its role in the Syrian Civil War.

In 2017, US oil exports were almost double what they were in 2016, due to "booming U.S. production, expanding pipeline and export capacity, and the more than $3-a-barrel discount" 5. The surge has received the attention of Asian markets previously devoted to OPEC:

U.S. crude oil exports to China accounted for 202,000 bpd—or 20 percent—of the 527,000-bpd total increase in American exports in 2017, EIA data showed. . . . Another large Asian crude oil importer, India, which had not received any U.S. oil in 2016, bought 22,000 bpd in 2017 to tie with Spain as the tenth-largest destination of American crude sales.
"U.S. crude oil exports rose to 2.175 million barrels per day, or more than 15 million a week, at the end of March," according to CNBC reporting in early April. Analysts expect the US to become the fourth largest oil exporter by 2022, behind Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iraq.

It doesn't seem much of a stretch that the Trump Administration would use an available excuse to back the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to further the US' ambitions as a major OPEC competitor. But there's no guarantee the US will be able to strike the bigger, better deal President Trump is after, and certainly the other signatories are concerned about the impact backing out could have on their national interests.

 

 

For fairly easily digestible information about the Iran Nuclear Deal, see this simple guide published by The New York Times.



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2018.05.06

US Reactivates the Second Fleet

Response to Russian Military Threat in the North Atlantic




The Crest of the U.S. Second Fleet
  The Crest of the U.S. Second Fleet

Over the past several months, I've written a lot about current, particularly political, events affecting our nation and wondering about their collective affect on the near future.


The Increasing Russian Threat

One recurring theme has been our relationship with Russia and Russian aggression. Russia is nearly always a topic in these posts: Russia is actively supporting the Syrian government in it's civil war; 1  Facebook was recently called to Washington to report on Russian intelligence services' efforts to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election; 2   Russian cyberattack operations against other government and financial targets, the presence of kompromat dossiers on Fmr. Sec of State Clinton and President Donald Trump, and reporting that the Kremlin had provided intelligence and other assistance to Mr. Trump since 2008;3   and a look at the FBI's investigation of the same.4


The US Second Fleet

Over this weekend, news emerged from the Department of the Navy and other media outlets on the reactivation of the US Second Fleet, to address a growing Russian subsurface threat. 5

The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) made the announcement on May 4, 2018, during a change of command ceremony at the US Fleet Forces Command (USFF).6

"Our National Defense Strategy makes clear that we're back in an era of great power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex," said [CNO Adm.] Richardson. "That's why today, we're standing up Second Fleet to address these changes, particularly in the north Atlantic."

The Deputy Director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, Bryan McGrath, told The Washington Post:
One concern the 2nd Fleet will immediately address [is] the threat from a now-modest number of Russian nuclear attack submarines capable of cruising in the depths off the East Coast.
The same reporting also said the Pentagon had proposed a NATO Joint Force Command, perhaps colocated with the USFF.


Conclusion

Shit's getting real, y'all: The Department of Defense had stood down the 2nd Fleet in 2011 in favor of concentrating on operations in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, and, I believe, because Russia no longer posed a relatively significant naval threat.

Secretary Matthis' recommendation to reinstate the 2nd Fleet must have been in response to assessments from the military intelligence community and of the current political climate. The factors I named above were likely just a few -- and they were based on information circulated in the media. Who knows what the balance of the indicators were.

Before you start watching your defense contractor stocks, I should caution you that the reestablishment of 2nd Fleet appears mostly to be an administrivial exercise. When the fleet was disestablished in 2011, its units were transferred to the new USFF.7 In other words, the ships, personnel, and support remained active -- the checks were being written by someone else, so to speak. Conversely, reestablishment of the fleet really means reopening the office of the fleet commander, who, by the way, will report to USFF. So it's possible, maybe even likely, the USFF will still be paying the bills, and all that has really happened was a delegation of operational control.

Still, a delegation of operational control is a significant move, and could suggest an expansion of the military budget for the coming fiscal year, six months away.



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2018.04.30

Mountain Collapse Likely Behind Sudden Thaw in Korean Relations

Finally Ending the Korean War




The Flag of Unified Korea
The Flag of Unified Korea

I was taken by complete surprise when news outlets were reporting an amazing turn of events in North Korea relations, particularly with South Korea. It was clear to me that something significant must have happened to cause North Korea to completely reverse course diplomatically; I figured they got some kind of deal so favorable as to coax them into forgetting its nuclear ambitions.

Then I came across this report from USA TODAY which could explain everything:

A study by Chinese geologists shows the mountain above North Korea's main nuclear test site has collapsed under the stress of the explosions, rendering it unsafe for further testing and necessitating monitoring for any leaking radiation.

The article explained that the most recent nuclear device test in September, 2017 is believed to have had a yield over five times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and ten times stronger than anything North Korea had previously tested. The final detonoation is also believed to have caused a series of earthquakes that shook the region in the weeks that followed, and actually reshaped the mountain above the test facility.1

Personally, I don't care so much that a crippling blow to the DPRK's underground testing facility is behind the diplomatic overtures between the Koreas as much as I do that the Koreas are talking and cooperating on at least small things (think the combined Korean olympic team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang).

April 29th reporting from The New York Times asserted Kim Jong-un would abandon its nuclear program if the US would agree not to invade the DPRK, and would also agree to formally end the Korean War. 2

 


Wait.. what? The Korean War never officially ended?

Public contributions to Wikipedia suggest that, although an armistice was established in late July, 1953 (which created the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas), no actual peace treaty had been signed.3

It's also worth noting that, not unlike Syria, there were more than just the Koreas involved: pro-communist forces in North Korea were receiving assistance from the Soviet Union and China, while forces in the south received assistance from the United States.

Why would Kim specify that he wanted agreement that the US would never invade? Kim Jong-un likely made this specification because the US was the primary supporter of the Republic of Korea during the Korean War, and possibly because of his recent exchange of insults with President Trump -- the greatest of which also occurred in September, 2017: 4

"The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime."

  — Mr. Trump, in his first address to the United Nations General Assembly



"A frightened dog barks louder."

"He is unfit to hold the prerogative of supreme command of a country, and he is surely a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire, rather than a politician."

“Whatever Trump might have expected, he will face results beyond his expectation. I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire."

  — Mr. Kim, responding in a statement to President Trump’s threat

Reporting from the BBC about an earthquake in North Korea on September 23, 2017 included references to Kim and Trump's exchanges.5 In fact, when compared with reporting from The New York Times, it appears the earthquake happened the day after those events as a matter of coincidence; the bomb test had occurred at the beginning of the month.

 


Ending the Korean War

North and South have both committed to formally declare the end of the Korean war by the close of the year, according to reporting from The Independent. The leaders agreed to cease hostilities and to pursue arms reduction, and to seek mulilateral talks with the United States and other nations.6



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2018.04.14

Poking the Bear in Syria

Global Conflict on the Small Stage





A 2013 Tweet from then-Candidate Trump

If you'd care to think about it this way, Syria is a sort of a Petri dish of warring factions and super power influence, relatively contained within an area about the size of North Dakota.1 Perhaps looking at these events through a figurative microscope will help us better understand what could become a flashpoint in heightened tensions between especially the United States and Russia.


Table of Contents

  1. About Syria
  2. Civil War
  3. Why is Russia Involved?
  4. Why is the US Involved?
  5. What Other States are Involved?
  6. Syria's Use of Chemical Weapons
  7. Coalition Strike, April 2018
  8. Protesting the Coalition Strike
  9. Conclusion


About Syria

Syria is bordered by Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Iraq and Jordan to the south, and by Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to its west. Damascus is its capital, close to its border with Lebanon.




Civil War

Syria's civil war began in 2011, with the violent suppression of protests ignited by the Arab Spring. 2. The year that followed gave birth to several opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army (started by former Syrian Armed Forces officers) and the al-Nusra Front, which was later swallowed up by ISIS.

In present day, Kurdish forces control the region of Syria north of the Euphrates river, which is approximately one-third of the country. Other groups control smaller regions throughout the country, as indicated on the map below, from Al Jazeera: 3



As you can see, the situation in Syria is extremely complex. The fact that super power states have taken sides further complicates matters. The Kurds in the North are supported by the United States, while Russia backs the government forces.

Other groups are also involved: ISIS controls some percentage of both forces' territories, likely from Iraq. Other rebel forces have made inroads into government-controlled lands from the northern border with Turkey, from the south between Jordan and Iraq, and west from Jordan and Lebanon.


Why is Russia Involved?

Russia has long been an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria serves as an important access point to the Mediterranean Sea for Russian ships and a hub for Russia in the Middle East. They have also supplied Assad with the military resources necessary to fight back against the rebels who nearly overthrew him in 2011. 4

Russia appears to be actively involved in Syria's civil war, lending military/ paramilitary support to President Al-Assad's forces. As recently as April 12, Russian military police and Syrian Army forces retook Eastern Ghouta, an area east of the capital city.5


Why is the US Involved?

Reporting from The Washington Post suggests the US was originally indirectly involved in the Syrian civil war at it's outbreak in 2011 by backing and providing limited armament to opposition groups working to topple President Assad. By 2014, in response to a growing ISIS threat in Iraq and in Syria, the US began conducting airstrikes on ISIS targets, and sending in "advisers" to capture and control the ground ISIS had held. By the time Russia started its air campaign in Syria in September 2015, the US found itself getting caught up in disputes with other regional actors, and had "at times acted against threats or the repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians." 6 7

The US has since become more directly invoved in Syria, though at least in part as a function of it's campaign against ISIS. The same reporting details incidents involving US armed forces within Syria since at least 2016 and especially in the spring of 2017, operating as part of a multi-national coalition against ISIS, but also training Syrian rebel forces. The US has also led missile strikes from naval platforms in the
Mediterranean Sea. 8


What Other States are Involved?

  • Iran. The Washington Post reporting previously cited detailed a June, 2017 attack on US troops by an Iranian armed drone near a base where Syrian rebel forces were being trained.

  • France. As the former mandatory ruler of Syria 9, the French appear to have generally taken a harder line against Syria and ISIS than even the US, and had been calling for military intervention since 2013, admitting it had armed Syrian rebels the following year. France significantly stepped up coordinated air strikes against Syrian targets after the 13 November attacks in Paris. 10 11.

    This doesn't necessarily mean that France is involved in Syria's civil war, but the line between civil war actor and international coalition against ISIS seems blurred.

  • Turkey. Turkey trained defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces and in 2011, "announced the birth of the Free Syrian Army under the supervision of Turkish military intelligence," later actively working to align itself with a post-Assad government and providing arms and training to Syrian opposition forces. 12

  • Great Britain. Reporting from Sky News in August, 2012 asserted that the UK was providing intelligence on Syrian military movements from its bases on Cyprus to the Turkish, who forwarded that information to the Turkish-trained Free Syrian Army. 13 14.


Syria's Use of Chemical Weapons

Over the past five years, President al-Assad used chemical weapons against people inside of Syria. Let's first look at the 2013 attack, then the most recent attack, and finally a quick overview of attacks that have occurred between the two.

2013 Attack

The attack happened in Ghouta, near the capital city of Damascus, in the early hours of August 21, 2013.



According to BBC reporting, some of the missiles used were Soviet-era M14 rockets. 15 Other rockets were unidentified 330mm surface-to-surface missiles with a thin casing designed to peel away at impact to expose the nerve agent sarin. 16

2018 Attack

About 42 Syrians died in the suburb of Douma, east of Damascus on April 8, 2018. 17 Reporting from The New York Times indicated that the compound involved may have been chlorine. 18

...And all the attacks in between

The same reporting from The New York Times highlighted multiple chemical attacks throughout the time period (read: date - chemical agent):

  • April 2014 - Poison gas
  • May 2015 - Chrlorine
  • August 2015 - Mustard Gas
  • September 2016 - Chlorine
  • April 2017 - Sarin


Coalition Strike, April 2018

A coalition of US, British and French forces struck Syria's chemical weapon facilities on Friday, April 13th. The facilities were located west of Homs near the Lebanon border, though confidence that the destruction made a significant impact on Assad's program seems somewhat low. 19

Each member of the coalition has shown they had greater reasons for performing the strike than just the humanitarian mission of protecting Syrian citizens. We've established the United States has forces inside Syria and is known to support the rebel forces, as do the British and the French.


Protesting the Coalition Strike

Russia, Syria, and Iran immediately protested the coalition action, with Russia calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. At that meeting, Russia was joined by China and Bolivia in its resolution proposal. Eight countries voted against Russia's resolution, and three abstained. 20

This is not the first time Russia has protested to the UN Security Council on other countries' intrusions upon Syria's sovereignty. In early 2016, Turkey began attacking Kurdish militia from positions inside of Turkey. Russia's attempt to have a resolution adopted by the UN Security Council was "undermined by Western powers, including the U.S., the UK, and France" 21 -- the same countries that participated in the most recent strikes. As the image above shows, Russia has managed to gain at least anecdotal support from Bolivia, China, Iran, and Syria.


Conclusion

President al-Assad and his government forces have been using chemical agents over the past five years to destroy opposition to his regime. In the seven years since the Arab Spring and the start of Syria's civil war, the United States and key allies, in league with neighboring Arab states, have worked to train and arm opposition forces, while Russia and its Arab state allies have worked to support government forces.

My suspicion is that the anti-ISIS mission provides the US and its allies with sufficient reason to operate within Syria, or at least within Iraq -- meaning that as long as ISIS is a threat in Iraq and Syria, the US has all the reason it needs to continue to work against the Assad regime.

My primary concern has to do with the recent escalation of tensions between the Russsians and the West and its allies. Almost every country involved in the strike, or involved in reaction to the strike, has some "skin in the game."

"Because Reasons"

Fallout from Russia's espionage efforts related to the 2016 US presidential election continues to surface, and the murder of a former double agent in Great Britain sparked outrage from both the British and the US, including the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the US, and American diplomats from Russia. Though these events are not directly related to the Syrian civil war, I can't help but wonder if events like the coalition strikes against Syria's chemical weapons facilities are tantamount to "poking the bear."

(I find this ironic, considering the lengths to which President Trump has gone toward stroking the bear, against the guidance of his advisors -- most recently, congratulating President Putin on his re-election in what was widely viewed as a completely fraudulent national election and despite direction to the contrary.) 22

Of the coalition participants, only France seems to have relatively stable relations with Russia, having even cooperated with each other on bombing campaigns against ISIS. 23

Looking at the countries aligned with Russia in these events, China immedately stands out because of the trade war the US seems to be starting. 24 News in recent weeks recounted new tariffs on lists of products both American and Chinese. I don't know if it's likely that China would continue to escalate at Russia's behest, but I think it's a result worth considering.

The next sensible question: How are Russia's relations with China? The short answer: apparently quite good:

[Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi], during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, declared that "China-Russia relations are in the best period of history." He added that the two sides should seek even closer coordination in the future, saying that "since the current international and regional situation is still full of various uncertainties, it is necessary for China and Russia, two close strategic partners, to strengthen communication and coordination." In talks with both Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wang stressed the need for China and Russia to coordinate on regional and global issues of interest, help safeguard each other's national interests, and support each other in taking up larger roles on the world stage. 25

What about Iran? A Newsweek article published at the start of 2018 may offer some insight:

Iran's leadership has blamed foreign powers, especially the U.S., for having a hand in recent, deadly protests that have swept the country, pointing to President Donald Trump's immediate support for demonstrators on social media and the U.S.'s long history of invasions and interventions that includes an early interference into Iranian politics that shaped the modern relationship between the two nations.

As Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi blasted Trump's eager backing of Iranians taking to the street to protest economic conditions and strict religious rule, Iran's supreme leader and top authority, Shiite Muslim cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, commented on the situation for the first time Tuesday. Khamenei warned of foreign meddling behind the country's civil unrest, but maintained that "what prevents the enemies and their hostile actions is the spirit of courage, self-sacrifice and faith among the people." 26
Does it seem Iran has a grievance against the United States? Well, how warm are relations between Russia and Iran?
Since President Trump took office, in 2017, Moscow and Tehran have shared increasingly common bonds: growing tensions with Washington and a quest to expand spheres of influence in the Middle East.27

Does it make sense that Russia will find other nation states with an axe to grind against the United States and pull them into Russia's orbit?

In a radio speech during WWII, Winston Churchill famously said, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Russia's warming relations with at least China and Iran could eventually spell trouble for the US and its allies should tensions increase beyond diplomatic capability.

 28



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2018.04.09

Crossing the Streams

Mueller investigation seems to reach into Daniels Affair




President Trump, from his official photo.
President Trump

A few moments ago, The Washington Post reported that the FBI "executed a series of search warrants" at the Manhattan office of President Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen, and that they seized records related to the payment Cohen made to adult film star Stormy Daniels. 1

UPDATE - 5:50 PM CDT:
The Washington Post is now reporting that Cohen is under federal investigation for bank fraud and campaign finance violations. This would certainly be a more plausible explanation for the FBI raids than interest in the Daniels case alone -- although, I've never quite been able to shake the reporting that showed Cohen made the payment arrangements using his Trump campaign e-mail address.

The Post offered other additional details regarding it's previous reporting, including details that privileged communications between Cohen and his clients were seized -- including those with President Trump -- along with Mr. Cohen's computer, phone, and personal financial records. 2



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2018.04.09

Let's Talk A Little More About Facebook

Zuckerberg Testimony makes Facebook look like an intelligence organization




I'm a little surprised by what I read in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's prepared statement to the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the House of Representatives, as reported by The Washington Post. 1

In section III, "RUSSIAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE," Zuckerberg recounts the activities of groups named APT28 and the now-infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA), and mentions that as recently as last week Facebook removed accounts and pages operated by the IRA, adding that "Some of the pages we removed belong to Russian news organizations that we determined were controlled by the IRA."

To me, remarks like these smack very heavily of intelligence reporting. Given all that happened with Facebook since the 2016 US federal election cycle, I suppose it's not really too much of a stretch to think that experts from the federal government would be embedded with Facebook in some sort of a fusion center-like environment, coupling events surfacing on the Facebook network with intelligence derived from other sources. I'm simply skeptical Facebook has the organic resources to make the statements in Zuckerberg's remarks.

Taking the "Facebook fusion center" concept a step further, it might not be too outlandish to suggest the US intelligence services might also be using the Facebook network for foreign intelligence gathering, or at least the enormous amount of data it generates. Sound silly? Certainly, Mr. Zuckerberg is well aware of impending election cycles abroad:

We’re committed to getting [the addition of verification requirements] done in time for the critical months before the 2018 elections in the U.S. as well as elections in Mexico, Brazil, India, Pakistan and elsewhere in the next year.

Facebook is a global phenomenon, reaching over 2 billion by Zuckerberg's count. By the middle of last year, India -- not the US -- was Facebook's top consumer, and among the cities with the largest populations of active Facebook users, the top ten were all outside of the United States. 2

It stands to reason that Facebook would observe increased regional traffic in response to events like elections. But I just can't shake the notion that Facebook couldn't "name names" without assistance.



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2018.03.12

Prior Restraint

What is Prior Restraint?




President Trump, from his official photo.
President Trump

The term "prior restraint" is appearing in the news quite a bit lately as a function of President Trump's affair with porn actress and director Stormy Daniels. In context: Trump and lawyers seek to prevent a recorded CBS interview with Daniels from airing.

The notion of such an injuction is tricky, according to an expert cited in Washington Post reporting, because "A judicial 'gag order' against Ms. Daniels or CBS would constitute a 'prior restraint' of free speech, which under First Amendment doctrine is almost never permissable." A separate lawyer quoted in the same article "said she thought the president's lawyers have few options" to prevent the segment from airing, adding, "If [President Trump's lawyers] succeed, it is a prior restraint of speech. If they fail, they look like they lost." 1

Separate reporting published today from The Washington Post offers additional explanation. Recall that then-citizen Donald Trump and his personal lawyer Michael Cohen presented Daniels with a non-disclosure agreement. Recent media reports indicated that Daniels no longer recognizes the validity of the agreement because Mr. Trump did not sign it. A defamation attorney quoted in the March 12th article noted that "CBS would need to be a party to the suit to be restrained from airing the interview, and since the obligation on Ms. Daniels arose as part of a private settlement, I don't see much legal basis to enjoin CBS — a stranger to the settlement agreement — from doing anything."2

That part's important: CBS was not party of the initial agreement, which is currently being contested. This is where the notion of prior restraint comes in. "To thwart '60 Minutes,' Trump would need to secure a separate order against CBS — a prior restraint of speech that legal precedent suggests is unconstitutional," says Callum Borchers, author of the March 12th article. "Trump's attorneys could argue that CBS is going to defame the president by airing the Daniels interview, but 'the law is, as a general rule, you don't get injunctions because of an anticipated defamation,' said George Freeman, a former in-house lawyer for [The New York Times] who is now executive director of the Media Law Resource Center."

An article on Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute website describes two common forms of prior restraint: one characterized as licensing, and the other "is a judicial injunction that prohibits certain speech." 3.

The doctrine of prior restraint is further explored in this article on FindLaw.com, and Duke University has online an exerpt from the book "Law and Contemporary Problems", featuring a chapter titled "The Doctrine of Prior Restraint" written by Thomas I. Emerson, which features a history of its use starting in Europe in the sixteenth century and explains the significance of Near vs. Minnesota, a case synonymous with the modern legal concept.

Perhaps the most significant feature of systems of prior restraint is that they contain within themselves forces which drive irresistably toward unintelligent, overzealous, and usually absurd administration. (Emerson, 658).

Finally, if you're looking for more information on the history of the Stormy Daniels events, Vox published Stormy Daniels's legal battle against Trump, explained, which walks through the whole story so far.


UPDATE: President Trump's lawyer's correct name is Michael Cohen, not James Cohen.



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2018.01.26

On The Interview of Glenn Simpson and the Infamous Dossier

Our nation is living our worst Cold War nightmare




President Trump, from his official photo.
President Trump

 

What follows is the Senate Judiciary Committee's interview of Glenn Simpson, the head of Fusion GPS, a research firm that was retained to perform an investigation of then-candidate Donald Trump, and the Committee's review of a series of memoranda detailing intelligence collection activities in support of Fusion GPS' mission.

Before diving in, it's important to become familiar with some terminology to better understand the researchers' world.


Kompromat

At the heart of all of this is the concept of kompromat, which is a Russian word for blackmailable information that can be used for the coercion of an individual or group. According to memoranda provided by Christopher Steele, working on behalf of Fusion GPS, Russians had alerted the Trump Campaign to the existence of kompromat intelligence on Bill Clinton and on Hillary Clinton separately, and the Trump Campaign was eager to receive it. -- This is what made headlines in the US.

Separate reporting by Steele also stated the Russians had significant kompromat on Donald Trump himself, recounting lurid activities at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow and other sexual activities in St. Petersburg.

While we're here, we should talk a bit about the FSB, a Russian state intelligence organization which collects this kind of information. The FSB, among other state intelligence organizations, originated from the Committee of State Security -- the KGB -- in the days of the USSR. The FSB is the Federal Security Service, which is responsible for surveillance, internal and border security, and counterterrorism within Russia. The FSB was the primary actor mentioned in connection with Russian kompromat activities.


The Dossier

Steele's reporting occurred in a series of memoranda to Fusion GPS. These memoranda were leaked to Buzzfeed and mischaracterized as a "dossier" of intelligence. A link to the leaked memoranda appears at bottom.

These memoranda were the reason Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS volunteered over nine hours of testimony to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee last August. Released this past Tuesday was the 312-page transcript of that testimony.

I happened to have a minute, so I read it for you. You're welcome.


What is Fusion GPS?

Fusion GPS is the name of a research company formed by Glenn Simpson and other investigative journalists formerly of the Wall Street Journal.

Fusion GPS is typically contracted by companies to investigate issues of concern with potentially litigable outcomes, like being hired to investigate why that company failed to win a contract they felt they should have won. (In fact, Fusion GPS was collecting research regarding a Russian company called Prevezon when they were commissioned to research Donald Trump. Simpson characterized Prevezon as a victim of extortion.1 The case made national news.) Fusion GPS is also hired, particularly during political seasons, to do oppositional research on political candidates. Simpson claims the company is itself politically neutral, suggesting that they'd been hired at times by each party to perform investigations on candidates of the other. (Reporting from The Washington Post suggests the research on Donald Trump was initially funded by a "GOP megadonor" before lawyers from the DNC retained Fusion GPS to continue the research.)3

Fusion GPS' research, asserts Simpson, is open-ended, meaning that there is no predefined end game for the research itself -- conclusions are drawn from the result of the research. With respect to their research on Donald Trump, the objective was simply to investigate whether his business dealings were legitimate, and whether he was representing himself honestly.

Fusion GPS conducts its research primarily, or initially, through open-source means. In the case of Donald Trump, Simpson said his first steps involved ordering every book on Donald Trump from Amazon. Other open sources include public filings and other information obtainable through Freedom of Information Act requests.

If additional research is needed, the company may contract with certain knowledgable and trusted third parties to obtain additional intelligence on specific topics. For example, if Fusion GPS became particularly interested in Donald Trump's golf courses in Scotland, they might send somebody to Scotland to investigate the courses -- not necessarily sharing that the actual objective is an investigation into Donald Trump.

The testimony for the Senate Judiciary Committee was centered on information obtained by Christopher Steele, a subcontractor to Fusion GPS, and the reporting (memoranda) he provided.


The Research

Fusion GPS initially discovered connections between Mr. Trump and various crime organizations.

I found various references to [Trump] having connections to Italian organized crime and later to a Russian organized crime figure named Felix Sater.4 ... As it happens, Felix Sater was connected to the same Russian crime family that was at issue in the Prevezon case.5 ... I saw that Donald Trump was in business with Felix Sater in the Trump SOHO project and a number of other controversial condo projects.6 ... We learned that Felix Sater had some connections with [alleged Kazakh money launderers], and it's been more recently in the media that he's helping the government of Kazakhstan recover this money. There's been media reports that the money went into the Trump SOHO or into the company that built the Trump SOHO.7 ... Another figure involved in the Trump SOHO project was a Central Asian person named ARIF... if you search under a different transliteration of that name you can find open source reporting alleging that he's an organized crime figure from Central Asia and he's had an arrest for involvement in child prostitution.8
This research gave rise to bringing Steele aboard to "see what he could find out about Donald Trump's business actiities in Russia." 9

Simpson noted he was shocked at the reports Steele filed:

So the purpose of this was to see if we could learn more, generally speaking, about [Trump's] business dealings in Russia. What came back was something... very different and obviously more alarming... which outlined a political conspiracy and a much broader set of issues than the ones we basically went looking for.10



The Memoranda

Alarming it was. The combined reporting from Steele laid out a shocking story of corruption and deceit:

  • Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance
  • So far TRUMP has declined various sweetener real estate business deals offered him in Russia in order to further the Kremlin's cultivation of him. However he and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.
  • Former top Russian intelligence officer claims FSB has compromised TRUMP through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him. According to several knowledgable sources, his conduct in Moscow has included perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB.
  • A dossier of compromising material on Hillary CLINTON has been collated by the Russian Intelligence Services over many years and mainly comprises bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct. The dossier is controlled by Kremlin spokesman, PESKOV, directly on PUTIN's orders. However it has not yet been distributed abroad, including to TRUMP. Russian intentions for its deployment still unclear 11
This was just the first memorandum, dated June 20, 2016.

A second memorandum, dated July 26th was titled "RUSSIA/CYBER CRIME: A SYNOPSIS OF STATE SPONSORED AND OTHER CYBER OFFENSIVE (CRIMINAL) OPERATIONS."12 The memorandum included:

A former senior intelligence officer divided Russian state-sponsored offensive cyber-operations into four categories (in order of priority): targeting foreign, especially western, governments; penetrating leading foreign business corporations, especially banks; domestic monitoring of the elite; and attacking political opponents both at home and abroad. The former intelligence officer reported that the Federal Security Service (FSB) was the lead organization within the Russian state apparatus for cyber operations.13

Quick recap. In these two reports alone (there was a total of 16), we've learned:

  • The Russians are actively conducting cyberattacks against foreign governments, banks, and political targets;
  • The Russians had compiled a kompromat dossier on Fmr. Sec of State Clinton at President Putin's direction;
  • The Russians had snared Donald Trump in his own, particularly lurid kompromat which could be used as blackmail;
  • Donald Trump had been receiving intelligence from the Kremlin on his rivals, and receiving other support and assistance from the Kremlin since 2011.
But wait! There's more! Subsequent reporting set the actual date of Mr. Trump's collusion back to at least 2008, and offered greater detail:
...an intelligence exchange had been running between [TRUMP and PUTIN] for at least 8 years. Within this context PUTIN's priority requirement had been for intelligence on the activities, business and otherwise, in the US of leading oligarchs and their families. TRUMP and his associates duly had obtained and supplied the Kremlin with this information.14

The interview also makes mention of Paul Manafort, and his relationship with Russian and Ukranian oligarchs, and much ado about Michael Cohen, who was basically Mr. Trump's "fixer" for all things Russian. The intel Steele provided stated "a key role in the secret TRUMP/ Kremlin relationship was being played by Michael COHEN." 15  Furthermore, "COHEN engaged with Russians in trying to cover up scandal of MANAFORT and exposure of PAGE" -- this was damage control -- "in the attempt to prevent the full details of TRUMP's relationship with Russia being exposed." 16  Lastly, former Gen. Flynn was identified in one of the memoranda naming political figures receiving indirect support from the Kremlin on recent trips to Moscow. 17


The full transcript of the Senate Judiciary Committee interview may be found here.
The memoranda referred to during the interview may be found here.



Conclusion

First and foremost, I'm grateful to Sen. Feinstein for releasing the transcript to the public. I'm also grateful to Buzzfeed for publishing the leaked memoranda because it allowed me greater insight into some of the context of the Senate Judiciary Committee interview, helping me to understand the controversy.

This entire chapter in the history of our nation is written on pages I wish I could tear out. In the last elections, many Americans were looking for a departure from politics as usual. Our democracy is now run by a man who has been providing intelligence to Russia for at least 10 years under threat of blackmail.

Our nation is living our worst Cold War nightmare.


Footnotes:
1 “Read the full transcript of Glenn Simpson's Senate testimony.” Apps.washingtonpost.com, The Washington Post, 25 Jan. 2018, apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/politics/read-the-full-transcript-of-glenn-simpsons-senate-testimony/2700/, p.114.
2 See https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-crime-prevezon/u-s-settles-russian-money-laundering-case-idUSKBN18904I
3 See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/01/09/what-you-need-to-know-about-christopher-steele-the-fbi-and-the-dossier/
4 “Read the full transcript of Glenn Simpson's Senate testimony.” Apps.washingtonpost.com, The Washington Post, 26 Jan. 2018, apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/politics/read-the-full-transcript-of-glenn-simpsons-senate-testimony/2700/, p. 67
5 ibid., p. 68.
6 ibid., p. 69.
7 ibid., p. 296.
8 ibid., p. 298.
9 ibid., p. 74.
10 ibid., p. 143
11 "Trump Intelligence Allegations", retrieved 1/26/2018 from https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3259984-Trump-Intelligence-Allegations.html.
12 ibid., p.4. The memo was erroneously dated 26 July 2015 instead of 2016.
13 ibid., pp. 4, 5.
14 ibid., p. 11
15 ibid., p. 30
16 ibid., p. 32. "PAGE" refers to Trump Campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, whom was believed to be an easy target for Russian subversion.
17 ibid., p. 16.



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2018.01.13

Favorite Headlines

The feature is revitalized




A news headline from the Wall Street Journal reads, ' Porn star was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about Trump encounter'.
Image credit: The Washington Post

Initially, I created the "Favorite Headlines" section because of the silly -- no, fantastic -- headlines that were being published in the press. And when I used "fantastic," I didn't mean it in a positive way -- I meant "fantastic" more literally, as in a function of fantasy.

These were functions of fantasy because these stories shouldn't exist -- they just seem too far-fetched to represent actual events: headlines like the one about how the new Trump administration paid a bakery to rip off the design Duff did for President Obama's inauguration cake. Or the one where a paper mistakenly used an image of Steve Baldwin portraying President Trump in a satirical SNL skit instead of using an actual image of President Trump. THAT kind of fantastic.

The last time I'd published a "favorite headline" was in early 2017, I think. Maybe I'd become less watchful, or I'd become overwhelmed. Actually, maybe the headlines I saw after last January simply weren't all that... fantastic.

Each post I make under the nation or politics topic is the culminiation -- though I have been known to tweak and update after the initial post -- of a lot of research and a lot of deep thought. In most cases, I'm gathering a lot of data so I can learn and come up with a position on the matter. The immigration ban post is a great example of that. Such posts are few and far between, owing partly due to the complexity and partly because my interest in it must cross a certain threshold -- the subject has got to move me enough to put in all of that effort. And part of that effort is in providing the sources for all of the material I've considered. I want you to be able to see it for yourself, and make up your own mind.

As 2017 wore on, fewer headlines grabbed my attention for inclusion. As I wrote the most recent post -- my thoughts about the book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff -- I decided to remove the code displaying the "favorite headlines" section. I was about to get it onto my maintenance plan when, in the past two days, three headlines hit us out of the blue that actually justified keeping the feature active: news that the president reported Norway's purchase of fighter aircraft that only exist in a video game (he misspoke the model number); the now infamous news about the president asking why the US allows in so many people from "shithole countries;" and finally, news that the president's "fixer" paid $130K in hush money to a porn star just before he became a candidate.

As Wolff, quoting Sean Spicer, said: "You can't make this shit up."

I imagine the whole "shithole countries" quip is going to generate more headlines before it's done. I've heard that Norway actually responded, asking why in the world they'd want to come to our shithole country. (If that's true, then (1) good for them, and (2) I'll pinch that headline if I can find it.) Anyway, my point is, we may have some decent fodder to feed the feature for a little while.

So the "favorite headlines" feature stays in place for now.



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2018.01.10

Fire and Fury

Explains Much




The words 'Now Entering 2018' are superimposed over a traffic sign. The photo is of a California highway surrounded by wildfires.
Internet meme circulated in late 2017

 


Internet meme circulated in late 2017


We finally have answers. Perhaps more importantly, something about the Trump Administration finally makes sense. Credit Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury, which is a peek under the short skirt of the Trump Administration (yes, I tweaked the metaphor on purpose). Wolff's work provided so many insights and answers to questions I can't be the only one asking.

Wolff has been doing the talk show circuit for at least a week now. I ordered my copy of the book based on Wolff's Today Show interview and a Newsweek article -- a "top ten list" of topics covered in Fire and Fury's salacious 321 pages. 1 


Fire and Fury

Fire and Fury delivered for me the "ground zero" answer to all of my questions about the Trump Administration over the past year: Winning the race was never Donald Trump's intention.

With Wolff's help, I've been led to conclude, by piecing together content from the book with other news I'd picked up over the past year and a half, that the whole thing was about developing a message that Trump could later broadcast over a media company. In short, Trump's candidacy was step one of a two step program: (1) create a message (2) make a network to broadcast that message. The program was taken straight from the playbook of Roger Ailes, the disgraced former Chairman and CEO of Fox News who resigned in mid-2016 amid sexual harrassment allegations. Both Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, Wolff explains, are held in very high esteem at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- though for Murdoch, the feeling was not entirely mutual.

Trump's longtime friend Roger Ailes liked to say that if you wanted a career in television, first run for president. Now Trump, encouraged by Ailes, was floating rumors about a Trump network. It was a great future.

He would come out of this campaign, Trump assured Ailes, with a far more powerful brand and untold opportunties. "This is bigger than I ever dreamed of," he told Ailes in a conversation a week before the election. "I don't think about losing because it isn't losing. We've totally won."

The answer to just about any question one might ask about the Trump Administration can be traced back to that paragraph. Example: Why, particularly early on, why did the Trump Administration appear to be in complete disarray? Because they made no plans for becoming an actual Administration. Team Trump planned to lose the election. Another example: Why did Candidate Trump refuse to release his tax returns to the public? Because Team Trump planned to lose the election. Then-candidate Trump knew the entire furor would become entirely moot after Election Day.

Fire and Fury does three things very well: It offers insight into our enigmatic 45th president (and how the White House staff learned to shape information for him); it offers insight into the events that shaped the first year of the Trump Administration, from catalysts to reactions; and, perhaps most importantly, it offers insight into different factions within the White House who were constantly fighting for the president's favor.


Three Factions

To the final point above: three parties with different interests were all working feverishly to further their own agendas through President Trump: Steve Bannon, who was advocating for the no-quarter nationalist approach (Wolff refers to this as "Trumpism-Bannonism": an "iron-fisted isolationism"); Reince Priebus, who was working to further the interests of the Republican Party; and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who were pushing hard against Bannon for moderation, pushing for causes Bannon considered "off-message," and to generally mold 45 into a more presidential image.

As the events of 2017 unfolded, Wolff gave us the three sides to every story -- including how each side tailored their messages, and the players each recruited to bend the president's ear and hold his attention enough to communicate it (for example, Camp Kushner was using Joe Scarborough of Fox Network's Morning Joe, playing to the president's addiction to television). And it seems every topic was a battle; every day, a grueling war for virtual control of the United States and its place in the world.

Numerous newsworthy events were engineered by at least one of the three camps, Wolff explains. For example, the firing of FBI Director James Comey was engineered by Kushner, because Kushner's family business dealings were getting exposed as part of the Russia investigation. (Interestingly, Bannon urged against firing Comey because news coverage of the investigation would instantly become front-page material -- but also perhaps partly because he'd had his fill of Kushner.) Kushner then went to great lengths to deny any involvement in the decision.

Wolff walks us through many such events -- using the introduction of each actor and how they came to participate to set the stage, followed by the event and the reactions by each camp. Many of these events involving a given camp only became events because word was leaked by one of the other camps -- for example, much of the trouble Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were in was preceded by some action from an agent of either Bannon or Priebus -- or both.

At times the book reads like the latest installment of the Star Wars saga (*cue John Williams*):

If no text shows after a few seconds, right-click on the black field and refresh.

Episode VIII

A New Administration

Snokish Bannon's objective is to hone, use, and fully occupy Trump, raw and unwise in the ways of national politics, and eager for attention.

The rebellion, under direction of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, is desperate to manage Trump toward more liberal causes, under the watchful eye of Bannon and Reince Priebus, whose Republicans have control of the senate.

Bannon thrills at every action Trump takes against the liberal agenda (the Paris Climate Agreement, for example), crushing the rebellion and bringing Trump ever closer to becoming irrevocably enveloped in Bannon's black-hearted nationalism...

Credit: css-tricks.com


Pity the Fool

In truth, Fire and Fury has ultimately made me pity our president. I'm angry that he ran in the first place (because he had no intention of winning); he should have found some other way to craft a message without making a promise he never intended to keep. I'm angry about the things he did under Bannon's influence, and I'm angry about the hijinx the Republicans have been doing in Congress (like voting on important bills the Democrats had no chance to read). But ultimately, the book has shown that Mr. Trump has been a pawn the entire time. Everyone around him learned the one thing he craved most was adoration, and so all used flattery to their advantage to get him to do what they wanted.


Looking to the Future

Look where this could leave us. We have a president that entered the race for himself -- not for the good of the country. All he wanted was a media presence. Now he's the Commander in Chief, and, as Wolff helps illustrate, the issues facing the country don't interest him. Hell, reading doesn't interest him. The ONE thing in those 321 pages he really seemed to give any kind of a damn about was the use of chemical weapons in Syria -- and only because Ivanka was smart enough to put together a CARE-esque preso and made him watch it. 2  As was stated in the book, "He doesn't give a fuck." (That's a quote -- not my words.) He doesn't care about you. Or your family. Or your health care. Or your taxes. He cares about himself, television, -- his image on television -- golf, and cheeseburgers. Everything else is a pain in his ass (which I think is also at least close to another quote from the book).

I encourage all Americans to read this book -- but particularly those who voted for President Trump. Read it and really think about how our political process should function -- and what you can do to prevent this from happening again in the future.

I believe we the people had become complacent.

We the people were not engaged enough.

And we the people are suffering the fruits of outsourcing our liberty.

We the people need representatives in the judiciary, in the legislature, and in the executive who will absolutely act in the best interests of we the people of the United States of America.



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2018.01.01

Happy New Year

Exit Right




The words Now Entering 2018 are superimposed over a traffic sign. The photo is of a California highway surrounded by wildfires.
Internet meme circulated in late 2017

 


Internet meme circulated in late 2017

I used the term "dumpster fire" to describe the end of 2016 into 2017. I was talking about our national political situation at the time, and about events mainly at the federal level of government, and social issues in our country that seem to have fueled them. And so I thought the image above, which I found posted to social media, was uniquely appropriate to describe my feelings about what we could be in for in the coming year. But enough about that. Let's talk politics.


On the Trump Administration

Recent events and media stories have openly questioned President Trump's cognitive state.

Charles P. Pierce, writing on behalf of Esquire, offered commentary on a recent New York Times interview of 45:  1

[In the interview, the President] talks in semi-sentences and is always groping for something that sounds familiar, even if it makes no sense whatsoever and even if it blatantly contradicts something he said two minutes earlier. To my ears, anyway, this is more than the president*’s well-known allergy to the truth. This is a classic coping mechanism employed when language skills are coming apart.

I understand Pierce's observation, because I have a father-in-law who used similar evasive techniques. When responding to questions he didn't understand, he'd merely chuckle or offer some brief exclamation ("Oh!").

Pierce points out why the notion of an incompetent president is so important:

In Ronald Reagan’s second term, we ducked a bullet. I’ve always suspected he was propped up by a lot of people who a) didn’t trust vice-president George H.W. Bush, b) found it convenient to have a forgetful president when the subpoenas began to fly, and c) found it helpful to have a “detached” president when they started running their own agendas -- like, say, selling missiles to mullahs. You’re seeing much the same thing with the congressional Republicans. They’re operating an ongoing smash-and-grab on all the policy wishes they’ve fondly cultivated since 1981. Having a president* who may not be all there and, as such, is susceptible to flattery because it reassures him that he actually is makes the heist that much easier.

A friend, who posted the article on social media, had an interesting opinion -- he suggests mandatory testing and succession planning for national-level leaders susceptible to cognitive decline like Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

I'm not so certain we don't already have such planning in place. Additionally, I suspect an argument could successfully be made that any aspect of the President's health is a matter of national security. In other words, we can talk all we want about whether the President suffers from some sort of decline, but we'll likely never see any statement from the White House nor any other federal level agency offering any sort of confirmation.



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2017.12.23

UPDATED: Schnatter Blames NFL for Papa John's Slumping Sales; Steps Aside

The company's financial woes were probably not the NFL's fault




Photo of Papa John Schnatter. Image credit: Fox News
"Papa" John Schnatter at the NASDAQ. Image credit: Forbes

 

How does one lose $70 million of personal fortune in one night?

Blow it in Vegas? Get your hotel suite broken into in Paris? News reports suggest Papa John's CEO John Schnatter did it by putting his foot in his mouth on a quarterly earnings call AND getting an unsolicited endorsement by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Offering his thoughts on the National Football League's national anthem debacle, Schnatter blamed the NFL's inaction for slumping sales. CNN Money reported the remarks were criticized on social media by supporters of players' protest during the national anthem. (Papa John's is the official pizza sponsor of the National Football League.)

Forbes reported that Papa John's shares dropped 11% by mid-day Wednesday. And CNN Money reported that their stock has fallen 30% so far this year:

Papa John's (PZZA) stock value was just under $87 per share one year ago. This afternoon it was just under $57 per share. Image Credit: NASDAQ

National Public Radio reporting essentially avoided mention of the company's financial woes, except to include Schnatter's quote about damage to Papa John's shareholders.

I don't have any beef against Schnatter or Papa John's. My wife and I have ordered their pies for years. But I just sensed there's something out of place here.

What's bigger news here? The notion that Schnatter interjected his personal sentiments into an earnings call and got slammed for it, or the fact that he remained as CEO for an entire year while his company lost 1/3 of it's value? What other company would not consider leadership changes after three or maybe only two quarters of a slump like that? How did he stay at the helm for a YEAR?

Of course, there are a great many things I likely don't understand here. Particularly about the intricasies of corporate financials. There could have been other factors not surfaced in the news coverage that explain the decrease in stock value. The only thing I feel comfortable about saying probably wasn't to blame was the NFL. Regardless of how you feel about player's protesting social injustice, other publicly traded pizza chains did not suffer as Papa John's did (and it's not like the company's NFL sponsorship allowed them to "corner the market" on pizza delivery during NFL games. Plenty of other pizza and other food delivery companies advertise during those games.

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick started his protests in the preseason of 2016. A look at the 5-year chart of PZZA shows the company was trending upward consistently until December, 2016, when their stock had reached $89.17 per share. The stock has been in decline since that point.

I guess if I could see some pattern of decline that seemed to mirror the NFL schedule, I'd be more inclined to believe Schnatter's asssertion; the NASDAQ chart tells the story that something happened in mid-December 2016 that changed the company's fortunes -- a year in advance of Schnatter's earnings call blunder.

If pizza sales are tied so strongly to the NFL brand, it should follow that other publicly traded pizza chains should also have had a disastrous year. Over the same period, Domino's (NYSE: DPZ) was trading at about $150 per share in September, 2016. That December, it was trading at $170 per share. Its price reached $230 per share this July, and is currently still north of $190.

Stock chart for Dominos Pizza. Dominos stock rose over the same period as Papa Johns fell.

Here's a look at the two against the S&P Index:
Stock charts for Dominos Pizza, Papa John's, and the S&P 500 Index

Clearly, the NFL's and Papa John's problems are not Domino's problems.

According to Denver Post reporting from December 21:

Pizza Hut has also been working to up its delivery game and catch up with the more tech-savvy Domino’s Pizza Inc., which makes it easy for customers to order pizza pies through apps, social media posts or even text messages. Pizza Hut said Thursday that sales rose 1 percent at its established locations worldwide and were flat in the United States, an improvement from past quarters.

Domino’s, though, said sales rose 8.4 percent at established U.S. stores during the third quarter. That’s down from the 13 percent growth it reported in the same period the year before. “Nothing we reported in the quarter included commentary about the NFL because we saw no reason to call it out,” a Domino’s spokeswoman said Thursday.

For Papa John's to believe their fate is tied so closely to the NFL is to say that their sales all come from NFL fans. The New York Times stated the obvious in their coverage: "Pizza is big business during football games."

Thanks, Captain Obvious!

It's not just pizza, though: Nation's Restaurant News reports Buffalo Wild Wings has also taken a hit due to reduced NFL viewership.

According to a Snopes article, Papa John's Pizza was one of the NFL's biggest advertisers as of November, 2017, when it started pulling some of the NFL branding off of their advertising. Papa John’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) Steve Richie explained the link between the company’s financial position and the NFL:

We’ve had a long-standing relationship with the NFL and it’s served us quite well, just in terms of the overall brand awareness — we’re actually the number one recognized partner with the NFL, two years running. So we get the benefit when things are going well, but clearly we’re going to get the downside implications when things aren’t going that well.

The Nation's Restaurant News article also mentioned that Papa John's has entered into an agreement with Major League Baseball.

Schnatter was the subject of a meme in circulation on social media in late October/early November. The meme offered a rather one-sided comparison of Schnatter to Mike Illich, founder of Little Caesar's. While the meme makes some rather unfair statements (according to Snopes, a bullet regarding being found guilty of wage theft and not paying overtime actually involved a franchisee, not the Schnatter or the corporation), the Snopes article includes a number of quotes from Schnatter explaining the proper context for a number of assertions. (The link to Snopes includes the meme.)

Links:

CNN Money
Denver Post
Forbes
Nation's Restaurant News
NPR
Snopes.com (Meme)
Snopes.com (NFL advertising)
The New York Times
Wikipedia



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2017.12.07

Misconduct: Sen. Franken Resigns

For the Good of the Party




Sen. Franken comments on the allegations against him in late November. Image credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post

 

Senator Al Franken (D-Minn) has just announced his resignation from the US Senate in light of multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior during his career as a comedian.

It seemed to me the calls for his resignation came fast and furiously only in recent days -- calls led primarily by his female contemporaries on the same side of the aisle.

This makes me wonder whether Democrats, and Democrat Congresswomen in particular, are making a statement by leading this charge. In a sense, it wasn't about Sen. Franken as much as perhaps sending a message to the nation that the Democrats, unlike the Republicans, are willing to deal with these issues swiftly, and that the Congresswomen in particular have the support of the party.

Certainly the Democrats must take every opportunity to stand out against the Republicans who have been steamrolling them on issue after issue that has come up for vote the Senate floor. They must anticipate the move will curry favor with female voters in particular. In this sense, Sen. Franken's political career (well, probably any career he might choose to pursue at this point) has become sacrificed for the good of the party.

By stepping down at the close of the year, Sen. Franken is doing something really big for the Democratic Party by showing that the Democrats are strong on women, hold their leadership to a higher standard, and will not tolerate inappropriate behavior. Contrast with the Republicans have thrown their full support behind Judge Roy Moore of Alabama, who has infamously been accused by multiple women of preying on teenage girls when he was in his 30s, 1  and of course, the President's now infamous "hot mic" Access Hollywood interview audio from 2005 2  and the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. 3

 



Image credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post



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2017.11.30

Misconduct in the News

WTF IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?




Image credit: CNN

 

I sat in near shock yesterday morning as Savannah Guthrie announced to the world that Matt Lauer, a fixture on NBC's TODAY show for 20 years, was fired from NBC as a result of an allegation of sexual misconduct. Reporting from other sources appeared to confirm NBC's assertion that the incident was not isolated. This news followed last week's revelations that CBS' Charlie Rose was relieved of his responsibilities as news anchor for sex-related indiscretions.

The same day, news broke that Garrison Keillor, best known as the creator/host of Minnesota Public Radio's "A Prairie Home Companion" was fired from his employer, also for sexual misconduct.

News about Lauer and Keillor completely stunning. These are two men who project themselves as intelligent and measured. I really liked Lauer's delivery and the way he would interact with his co-hosts on TODAY; He gave me the sense that he was witty, rational and risk-averse, and I admired him for that. In the years I listened to "A Prairie Home Companion," I was attracted to Keillor's wit and dry sense of humor even back in the mid-1980's.

Granted, I don't pay much attention to tabloid reporting ("the hot sheets," as they were called in the movie Men in Black). I seem to very vaguely recall Lauer was on the cover of one of those rags some months ago... Vanity Fair reporting suggests The National Enquirer had harrasssed Lauer for years:

Lauer had been dogged by stories of infidelity for years, so much so that he had become a regular target of the tabloid press. That focus narrowed his world, according to a former colleague. "His pattern was that of a beleaguered person who was constantly being pursued by The National Enquirer," the former colleague told me. "He was their target No. 1." The Enquirer regularly ran stories on Lauer’s rumored affairs. "The Enquirer was suspected to have a crew on him, and he couldn’t do anything," the former colleague told me. "He’d led this lonely life after his wife moved his family to the Hamptons. He was always being followed."

I posted a reaction to the Lauer announcement on Facebook and received several responses. Perhaps the most notable of these was from a friend from high school who wrote, "They act for a living. Of course they know how to come across as sincere on the screen."

I took this more as a warning about perception. Case in point: Bill Cosby, whose Emmy®-nominated show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids ran for 13 years, and whose comedy albums I nearly memorized when I was a kid, was accused of sexual assault by 60 women. The accusations started becoming public in 2014.  1

The Annual Sexual Harrassment Beat-Down



Companies can and should find ways of communicating their policies without dividing their workforce.


I've been in careers that have required a lot of training. Sadly, sexual harassment training has been part of that training my entire adult life. And I say "sadly," because it's simply completely asenine that companies and agencies in our society are compelled to train their staff on how to behave like people because, invariably it seems, some jackass has to ruin things for everybody. In 1991, a small group of Navy pilots at an annual convention brought the operations of the entire US Navy to a standstill. 2

And, as a man, I'm mortified by having to undergo this training annually and sign an acknowledgment that I've understood the it and the company policies (which often include terms like "zero-tolerance" or even more threatening language.) It's a punishment, really, understandably designed to prevent repetition of some incorrigible act of an irresponsible jackass somewhere along the line.

And, in the wake of this training, one byproduct is always the same: the female team members become alienated in a way, because no man dare make eye contact with a female team member anymore after the virtual beating they just received from HR and Legal (I'm talking about the training). 3 Another byproduct: the message HR and Legal intended to send was accompanied by other messages with some consequences. I've had to endure some pretty heavy- handed sexual harassment training in some private sector companies, and it didn't leave me thinking favorably about people in that department.

Darth Vader as the HR Department Head

I'd bet there is data out in the world that measures the impact of sexual harassment training on (appropriate) cross-gender relationships. And I'd bet it shows a significant dip in the health of those relationships following every instance of training administration. I even wonder if some men, immediately after training, actually get angry and wilfully deny opportunities to their female counterparts or reports, because they blame them for having to go through these wasteful exercises?

Of course, companies don't really have a choice. They have to establish policies for legal reasons; they become the standards by which HR can measure an employee's performance. But I feel pretty comfortable in saying companies can and should find ways of communicating their policies without alienating their workforce. The bad thing is, that negative impact I talked about earlier is likely considered a completely justifiable consequence -- a price of being in business. They're not incorrect.

I'd opine that companies aren't really motivated to find those better ways of communicating their policies, because the company has no profit-based incentive to do so. It's not like we're going to see an interview with some former CEO saying, "Welp, all our men quit because they were offended by the sexual harassment training we made them take." With no incentive to change to a less Draconian approach, men will continue to feel threatened, women will continue to feel shunned, morale will dip, and relationships will suffer, year after year, as per policy.

The Message is Lost

Having said all of this, it's clear some aren't getting the message. 4  But then, perhaps the examples we're seeing on TV aren't getting the training. Either way, as long as there are men behaving badly in the workplace, the rest of us who can be adults and keep our hands and our thoughts to ourselves will continue to suffer.

Fallout



I don't want to have to keep paying the price for the idiots who can't keep themselves in check.


Lauer, Rose, Keillor and others are part of the fasionable trend of public exposure (no pun intended) of the bad actors. Honestly, I'm not sure where all of this is really headed. Clearly for the victims, the endgame is a measure of justice. Those getting outed on the evening news are seeing their careers flash before their eyes like the bulb on the camera that once adored them.

But what about the impact on the rest of us, who have sense? Will we be subjected to even more training? More stand-downs? In my opinion, the only thing these would do is make the good actors more resentful of the distractions.

I don't want to have keep paying the price for the idiots who can't keep themselves in check. Can't I just subscribe to something similar to a TSA Pre-Check program for sexual harrassment so I can just initial the policy acknowledgment and get on with my work life? Have some sort of background check that looks at the number of complaints over my entire work history and clears me?

Sex Partition

Why do we have to keep damaging many perfectly good relationships -- relationships that are healthy and good for the company -- because of bad actors? How divisive is this going to become? Will we reach a point where men will consider female coworkers an unacceptable risk? "I left my position at ACME because I was assigned to a team with some female members, and I wasn't about to subject my career to that kind of risk." Sure the example sounds silly, but there are men who are honestly afraid of the potential damage any slight misstep might cause. The LA Times article cited above included this quote:

One study found that almost two-thirds of male executives are even reluctant to have a one-on-one meeting with a junior female employee.
The author of that article, Kim Elsesser, is a psychologist, author, and lecturer at UCLA. What Elsesser describes here is what she calls a "sex partition" -- the notion that a particular action is viewed differently when different sexes are involved. Example: A man, in the role of a superior, having a closed-door meeting with a subordinate. The meeting with a subordinate man is considered entirely appropriate, but the closed-door meeting with a woman is questioned, which eventually impacts the normal superior-subordinate relationship. Elsesser argues a sex partition commonly hurts the female subordinates, because they miss the coaching and other opportunities the male subordinates receive.

What Does the Future Hold?

What else could this mean for multiple sexes in the workplace? Could we actually arrive at a point where sexual misconduct is so rampant that there's actually a stigma about hiring men? That female applicants are preferred over males because of a popular belief that men are unable to control themselves, and therefore pose an unacceptable risk?

Eventually, the US is going to have to have the uncomfortable conversation about why it is "me too" is storming through the private sector, yet certain national-level public officials remain unscathed.

For now, I guess we'll just stay tuned to the news.

 



Image credit: CNN, Lucasfilm Ltd.



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2017.11.18

Former Secretary Clinton and Uranium One

Fox vs Fox




Photo of Fox News Anchor Shepard Smith. Image credit: Fox News
Shepard Smith of Shepard Smith Reporting

 

I've a friend whom I consider rather a hardcore conservative. I reached out to him recently about a week ago when news broke about the DRUDGE REPORT -- his favorite webzine -- being linked to propaganda from Russia. 1  His reply: "Sessions better be planning a major Hillary investigation ... uranium one deal is potentially steeped in corruption." When I asked what purpose further investigation of Ms. Clinton would actually serve, he suggested that the "Best approach is to watch Fox News. You won't learn what is happening in Congress investigations on other news channels."


Shepard Smith Reporting

So this morning when I read an article examining a recent report by Fox News' Shepard Smith regarding this whole Uranium One mess, I had to share it with him. The article included the Fox News footage, provided below:

I'd rather not decorate Mr. Smith's reporting with inputs from other pundits, or with my thoughts just yet. I'd like to simply point out what Mr. Smith addressed here:

  • How Uranium One came to be under Russian control
  • The accusation and its source
  • Presidential Candidate Trump's allegation, dated June 2016
  • CFIUS, and the federal government process for evaluating foreign investment in the United States
  • The actual NRC recommendation and stiplulation
  • Donations to the Clinton Foundation -- source and timing.
It sure seems to me that Mr. Smith ran this to ground.


Backlash and Fox's Identity

As word of the Smith segment spread to other news outlets (CNN 2  and The Washington Post 3 are a couple of examples), they began to report just as much about the backlash from Fox News viewers as Mr. Smith's piece.

A separate Washington Post "analysis" article discussed the "different realities" in which Fox' Hannity and Smith live. I found the quote of a Fox News spokesperson particularly telling, describing Hannity as "an outstaning opinion commentator" and Smith as "an outstanding journalist." 4. Let that sink in. Hannity and Carlson and their ilk may be Fox's bread and butter, but it's not news -- it's commentary.


Final Note

I suppose we've yet to really discern the impact of Mr. Smith's report -- particularly whether we'll see the Trump Administration, Fox News commentators, and other conservatives back away from the Uranium One story.



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2017.10.30

UPDATED: First Indictments in FBI's Russia Probe

The Untouchables




Image credit: FBI

 

Revealed this morning were the first US government criminal indictments against actors in Special Council Robert Mueller III's probe into Russian government interference in the 2016 US national elections.

The indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Mr. Paul Manafort and business partner Mr. Rick Gates reads a lot like scenes at the end of The Untouchables. The movie tells the story of how notorious mobster Al Capone (pictured) was brought to trial by Elliot Ness and his team of US Treasury agents, and was convicted of tax evasion charges in 1931. 1

The Capone case was a landmark in the sense that the US government could use a tool as comparatively lame as tax evastion to bust up a multi-million dollar bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling enterprise and bring to justice the principal player in the Chicago underworld.

Why Compare Manafort and Gates to Al Capone?

I compare Messrs. Manafort and Gates to Al Capone for two reasons.

Like the case against Capone, the federal government traced the money: the indictment lays bare the men's work on behalf of a Ukrainian pro-Russian political party, the tens of millions of dollars they made, and the network of companies and accounts they used to launder the money. 2

And, like the case against Capone, Manafort and Gates failed to declare these earnings as (taxable) income; ergo, income tax evasion became the tool the US Government used to indict.

UPDATE: Jennifer Westhoven on CNN Headline News' "Morning Express with Robin Meade" pointed out that the personal spending particularly Manafort did was accomplished by wiring money directly from the overseas accounts to US businesses. I suspect one might argue that, since the money never actually went through Manafort in the US, he avoids responsibility for personal income tax. This could be why the federal government had to prove that Manafort (a US citizen) earned and hid the money in the offshore accounts.

Building their Case

I suspect perhaps this indictment was made possible perhaps as a second step, following the admission of a former Trump campaign adviser that he'd lied to the FBI regarding connections to the government of Russia. Court documents show the adviser, Mr. George Papadopoulos, "repeatedly tried to arrange a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials." 3

One assumes a relationship between the two actions in the context of the Russia probe -- perhaps simply establishing evidence that campaign advisors had ties to the Russian government.

I imagine step one in the FBI's cases was showing that arrangements for direct introductions were being made, and step two was perhaps showing that the Trump campaign was hiring advisors with at least indirect ties to Russia.

UPDATE: Reporting from the Washington Post suggests another target for the FBI could be Sam Clovis, a social conservative activist and former radio personality who served as national co-chairman of the Trump campaign and is currently awaiting Senate confirmation for a top position in the USDA. Mr. Papadopoulos is known to have communicated with Clovis regarding his infamous meeting in London in March, 2016. 4 The same reporting suggests that Mr. Papadopoulos likely "wore a wire" for the FBI in advance of getting a plea deal on October 5th, which could be cause for great concern among those "in Trump's orbit."

It should surprise no one that the FBI would play the long game here, leveraging Papadopoulos, Manafort and Gates to cultivate additional actionable intelligence later. There's much at stake, and the eyes of the world are watching.

 



Image credit: FBI



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2017.10.03

UPDATED: Tragedy in Las Vegas

Nearly 60 Dead; Nation in Shock




Photo of the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Resort, Las Vegas, NV.
Photo of the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Resort, Las Vegas, NV.

 

Yesterday a man staying at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada opened fire on a crowd gathered outside at a country music festival. Nearly 60 are dead and well over 500 are wounded. The man was armed with multiple assault weapons. He basically fired the weapons out of the windows of his hotel suite onto the helpless crowd of 22,000, some 30 stories below.

We can only guess at what motivated the shooter -- his name is well known by this point, but I like the approach the Mayor took in her interview on NBC's TODAY show, denying him posthumous notoriety by refusing to speak it -- to do such a horrific thing.

I heard yesterday that ISIS actually claimed responsibility. Why wouldn't they? I believe ISIS is sure to use his name as propaganda regardless of whatever the truth actually is. They'll spin whatever yarn they need to recruit and to further their cause. But reporting by CNN suggests law enforcement still must discover his motive before any connection to terrorism can be established. 1

Multiple news outlets reported this morning that the shooter was a retired accountant, who had 23 weapons in the hotel room and another 19 in one of at least two homes...

image advertising The Accountant (2016), starring Ben Affleck. Image credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Image credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment

Clearly the actions of Affleck's character in The Accountant aren't the same as the shooter in Las Vegas. I'm only drawing the comparison on the similarites of the career choice and the weapons. Still... I do wonder if the movie was some sort of motivator, or if there were similarities beyond the two I've drawn upon. Pure speculation.

On Why and How

And I think in times like these there is a line between healthy and unhealthy speculation. I've seen criticism on social media over the latter -- some make the point that why he did what he did is completely irrelevant; yet the public wants answers. Answers about everything. We do so love our infoporn. So, there's a demand for the irrelevant, I guess because it makes us feel like it's helping us to understand... to process. It's why I'm writing this.

I feel like the question we should be trying to answer isn't the why; it's the how. And the how gets directly to the heart of gun control and our freedoms under the Second Amendment.

"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
The Second Amendment is not specific about the types of armament a private citizen is allowed to have. So the question really isn't about the Second Amendment per se as much as it is how to regulate munitions the amendment permits. This is where we get into interpretation -- specifically, collective rights theory vs. individual right theory -- and into examples of individual cases, perhaps including United States v Miller (307 U.S. 174) and District of Columbia v Heller (07-290); but note that the court reasoned the sawed-off shotgun that was the subject of the former and referenced in the latter is not an instrument that "has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia . . . ."; automatic weapons are actually built specifically for that purpose. Learn more about these cases.

An internet meme featuring an image of President George Washington
President Washington didn't actually say that.

A Federal Ban

If we're getting into the how of the Second Amendment, we'll likely end up somewhere between Machiavelli and Orwell. But I don't think this is likely to happen -- primarily because laws governing firearms -- with exception of the National Firearm Act (NFA)-- are the province of state law. By the way, the few state law entries I've read with regard to ownership of machine guns acknowledge the NFA.

(UPDATE: When I started writing this post, I imagined a scenario in which the Republic of Texas starts secession planning in response to a federal ban on machine guns, and imagined the economic impact on the US on the loss of it's second strongest economy. But then I looked into Texas' laws regarding assault weapons (see below), and discovered they're already not allowed!)

The National Firearms Act

Machine guns and silencers are registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) under the National Firearms Act. 2  The purpose of the act was to tax and regulation of machine guns, silencers, modified weapons (like sawed-off shotguns) and explosive devices.

These weapons are registered by the manufacturers, importers, and certain governmental agencies -- not by private citizens. 3  The ATF must even be notified of even temporary transportation of an NFA-registered firearm across state lines. 4

State Laws May Be the Right Answer

I think it's more likely that states will continue to peform regulatory functions than we'd see any kind of federal legislation on the matter.

According to the NRA-ILA website, it is illegal in the State of Kansas to possess an automatic weapon: 5

"It is unlawful to possess... any firearm designed to discharge or capable of discharging automatically more than once by a single function of the trigger."
Persons in law enforcement are exempt, as are weapons "rendered unserviceable," and those registered in accordance with the National Firearms Act. 6.  (UPDATE: The ATF confirmed and offered some clarification to that final point: In Kansas, as long as the weapon, say, a machine gun, was registered with the NFA before the law went into effect in 1986, a private citizen is allowed to legally own that machine gun in Kansas. No further qualification is required.)

The base Kansas and Texas laws are two examples of state legislation that could work for curbing unbridled access to assault weapons. By contrast, the Nevada law simply states ownership of legally acquired and registered machine guns is lawful. 7

Perhaps if more states establish stricter automatic weapons control, we could finally leave episodes like this one behind us.



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2017.09.09

Clinton's What Happened Hits the Shelves Tuesday

An Angry Recounting of National, Campaign Events




Partial cover for Clinton's new book. Image credit: Simon & Schuster

 

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's book -- the one you knew was coming -- arrives Tuesday.

The New York Times' review describes it as "angry" and "unsparing."

On a less serious note, the book is the subject of an Internet meme and even has the related twitter hashtag "#BetterNamesForHillarysBook."



Image credit: Simon & Schuster



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personal statement

Humor posts aside, I only seek to understand the events I describe in these posts, and to form an opinion after considering the material I've gathered. I believe we need leaders in Washington to act in the best interest of the United States as a citizen nation of the world, and who represent the interests of the people they serve above the interests of party affiliation.